How Sexist Internet Trolling Is Finally Getting Taken On By Politicians In The UK

Does the sun rise in the west? Is the sky blue? Does sexism still exist? To one Debate.org user, that last question is debatable. His/her answer: “Sexism still exists in first world countries, but people make a bigger problem of it than it is.”

Now, there’s no shortage of statistics I could cite about everything from abortion access and rape culture to the wage gap and representation to prove women aren’t making up the huge, lingering problems we face, but arguably (arguably, I already admitted because I can see you getting ready to argue) the most tangible proof of just how big a problem sexism remains in modern society is the treatment of women on the Internet. And I’m inclined to think the cross-party coalition of female British politicians campaigning against online misogyny are with me on this.

The Labour Party’s Yvette Cooper and Jess Phillips; former Liberal Democratic Party MP (Member of Parliament) Jo Swinson; and ex-Tory (Conservative) minister Maria Miller recently launched the online campaign “Reclaim the Internet,” to address sexist internet harassment and trolling and help women be and feel safer.

According to a recent study by London-based research center Demos, over the course of three weeks, more than 6,500 UK Twitter users were on the receiving end of 10,000 explicit misogynistic tweets containing the slurs “slut” and “whore” — classic! The study found 200,000 similar tweets were sent to 80,000 people around the world over the course of those same three weeks. And contrary to what you might think, the study found about 50 percent of this was girl-on-girl crime. Blergh.

For specific examples of disgusting name-calling and even violent threats, I recommend this report by The Guardian on “threats of killing and rape” and other nasty, gendered comments received on the regular by female journalists and bloggers around the world. Similarly, female sports journalists face commentary that’s, in some ways, even more sexually-charged due to sexist tropes that cast sports as a Guy World exclusive, and of course, rape threats. Watch a video of men reading these threats aloud to the female sports writers in the video below.

And it’s not just women writers: One musician documented 10 years worth of sexual harassment and perverted messages she’d received through social media on the Instagram account @perv_magnet.

Oh, technology. For all the ways you make life easier and safer through the spread of information, you also make it harder and more dangerous through giving bigots and misogynists one hell of a platform. The classic adage regarding internet harassment and trolling is “don’t feed the troll,” eg. just ignore and don’t respond to online harassers.

But aside from the fact that slurs and horrifying threats can be not only difficult to ignore but traumatic to impressionable youth, there’s the fact that the internet isn’t some separate sphere cut apart from the rest of society. The spread and normalization of sexual, gender-based attacks on the web is the spread and normalization of sexual, gender-based attacks in society at large. That so many women are also dishing out the slurs shows women have been so exposed to gendered harassment that they’ve come to internalize sexist attacks as hurtful to themselves and, thus, the best weapon to hurt other women with.

“Forty years ago women took to the streets to challenge attitudes and demand action against harassment on the streets. Today the internet is our streets and public spaces,” Cooper told The Guardian. “Yet for some people online harassment, bullying, misogyny, racism or homophobia can end up poisoning the internet and stopping them from speaking out.”

Submitted by anonymous, who requested blurring the name and face for her own protection.

A photo posted by Mia Matsumiya (@perv_magnet) on

Cue “Reclaim the Internet,” which aims to do just that for women everywhere by collecting ideas to address the issue, as well as reports of misogynistic abuse over the next couple of months, all of which will be discussed at a conference in July, Mirror reports.

As noble a cause as this is, I can already see the meninists and self-described “freedom of speech advocates” arming themselves for what promises to be an obnoxious, testosterone-fueled internet brawl. God knows how often “political correctness” (aka, basic respect/common courtesy) is portrayed as the literal apocalypse, and how frequently freedom of speech is weaponized to devalue legitimate complaints made by the feminist movement.

Which is ironic when you consider how free-speech advocates who want to be allowed to say whatever they want without listening to others, dismiss issues pointed out by feminists as unworthy of discussion, acknowledgement, and respect. I guess as issues pertaining to gender so often are, the right to speak your mind doesn’t go both ways.

At any rate, Phillips of the Labor Party has the perfect preemptive response to the incoming flood of complaints about free speech:

“Reclaim the Internet is trying to make sure that freedom of speech for all the amazing girls and women is not drowned out by faceless avatars. I want spunky women shouting up and facing honest to goodness debate and challenge.Not men with spunky names bullying women in to silence.”

Phillips makes a good point: The knowledge that any tweet orFacebook status update or even Instagram post expressing an idea, especially if your privacy settings are lax, will inevitably invite (at best) obnoxious mansplaining and (at worst) slurs and rape threats can sure shut a girl up, no matter how proud of an idea she is.

And Phillips also makes a good point with her reference to “faceless avatars.” Sure, misogyny is a huge factor in online harassment, but a lot of it is also the sense of comfortable de-individuation that the internet gives through allowing anonymity.

If no one knows who you are, you can’t face any consequences or have to answer for your bullshit. To anyone bored and seeking a cheap thrill, or anyone who feels small and insecure (and according to a 2015 study about the kind of men who harass women on the internet, with good reason), the allure of mouthing off without any repercussions is too tempting to resist. It’s beyond time we start taking quantifiable measures to fight back.