Reclaim the internet…
There’s a slow and horrible realisation that creeps up on you when you’re trolled. First, it’s the sensation of feeling a little bit dirty – as if you’ve been tainted by someone else’s filthy words. When you can shake that off, there’s the anger that comes with knowing that someone has been so cowardly they’ve targeted you anonymously. There’s also sadness and frustration, because it does hurt, no matter how many times it happens. And even though the perpetrators are usually anonymous, it’s deeply personal, because it’s an intrusion into the space you had made your own. It makes you question yourself, even though you know it shouldn’t.
The first abuse I received for my writing wasn’t online. As a young, female news reporter with brown skin I was always easy to find in newsrooms. There was the skinhead who came to the office of the first daily paper I worked at. He came to find me after I’d reported on the racist murder his brother had just received a life sentence for. And it wasn’t always about the colour of my skin. It didn’t matter that I’d won a national press award and been named environment reporter of the year – climate science, or the impact of dairying on waterways were apparently too complex for my brain. The smears and personal attacks came in the form of letters addressed to the editor, to me personally on the newsdesk, and then, of course, in forums and comments online.
The worst of it came after I wrote about feminism. Among the trolls was one who told me that he’d like to tie my tubes with barbed wire. He isn’t worth me remembering him. But I do. Because neither he, nor anyone else, will make me change my mind about how important it continues to be that we call this behaviour out and refuse to let it silence us.
As women, we are subjected to an onslaught of abuse online. New research by Demos and cited by Reclaim the Internet showed that in a three week period last month, 6,500 users received 10,000 misogynistic and abusive tweets, just in the UK. That’s phenomenal, and disgusting, and horrific. We are targets for harassment, purely because we are women. This harassment we have always seen has moved over to the web, and on this infinite cyber playing field, we cannot afford to lose this fight.
Figures like these show that we are not safe. They dispel completely the myth that online abuse is rare or confined to specific sites or areas. Still, we cannot allow any level of this abuse to be considered in any way acceptable. At its very, very least, it denotes a complete lack of empathy, it legitimises the denigration of women, it extends our treatment as objects, it builds on a cycle that presents us as targets. At its worst, it can have horrendous consequences on its victims. It can perpetuate the abusive behaviour it seeks to normalise.
We all have an equal right to the internet. We have the right to a space where we can make our voices heard, free from fear, free from abuse. We haven’t had the freedom to make our voices heard for too long. We have to ensure that it is ours to keep now. We have been marginalised and quietened and pushed in some ways into these corners of the internet where we are talking. But we have to keep using our voices, here in these corners for a start – because if we don’t won’t be heard outside them. And if we’re not heard, we’re not equal.
So how do we do it? We keep on talking. We keep on telling our stories. We keep on sharing our stories. We keep on calling out abuse. We keep on.
My children don’t know what the internet is yet. They’re adept at swiping their fingers on the iPad to watch another YouTube rendition of Let It Go, but their understanding of the web doesn’t go much further than that. In the next few years though, they will discover an entire virtual world at their fingertips. My two-year-old and four-year-old will in a few years time, I have no doubt, be using apps and social media platforms that I have never heard of and am unlikely to ever get my head around. I want my son and my daughter to use them without fear. I want them to live online, not in the edges, in the quiet corners, but in the spaces they choose and in the ways they choose. I want them to talk loudly, to share their views, to find a platform that is theirs, and that is free from abuse.
I want them to be safe here.