When comments first arrived at the bottom of the internet, in their blood-spatter and bile, I wondered what it would mean for young women writing online. I had recently been one, you see, barely a day before. Until comments, angry readers had been obliged to find a bit of paper and a green pen before writing their response to my pieces about the benefits of a tiny handbag, or at least find my email address and then a quiet library in order to set out their ideas about my latent Judaism and love of cash. And then the internet opened and, while some of its corners welcomed passionate discourse, leading to friendships borne of such fetishes as identity politics on The Wire and the propagation of succulents, the spaces under women’s writing wriggled with fury and disgust.
What I thought would happen would be that young women would weigh up the benefits of such a career or hobby, one that invited commentary from a collection of boys that read their thoughts about a new computer game and react by critiquing their breasts, and decide, nah. I thought the advent of comments would signal a loss of female voices online and, undoubtedly, many women went quiet. But many, instead, accepted the abuse as a price of admission, their skin thickening until a daily scream from a stranger in Spain reminding them of their infinite stupidity became as routine as tea.
I wonder, as a growing number of female MPs announce they won’t be standing in the general election citing the abuse they faced in office, whether something is about to change. Whether it has to. Any person online has seen the relentless tide of faceless tweeters and proud fathers of three pouring pain on women they disagree with as if laundry water from a window. Any person who’s talked to a woman in a position of power has heard of the threats they receive, whether on the way they walk home at night, or their absence from TV debates, or the security doors they install at their homes. Last week, 72 women MPs sent a letter to Meghan Markle describing how, “We share an understanding of the abuse and intimidation, which is now so often used as a means of disparaging women in public office from getting on with our very important work.”
The problem is, it’s effective. Why would any normal person rationally choose to stick in a job that requires her to piss on a thousand fires simply to reach her desk? Why would any young woman seeing not just the rape threats and violence a politician must navigate, but their daily weather conditions, the tornado of ignorance, of comments on their weight, decide to choose that life over something simpler, perhaps in telesales?
A century after women won the right to vote, 50 years after fighting for a place at the table, they are being bullied out of public office and public life by people with numbers for names. By people whose online faces are Union Jacks, whose waking moments are spent sharing memes about Trump, torture and cheeky little frogs. People empowered by such troll heroes as Rod Liddle who, in a recent Islamaphobic Spectator article, also found time for a nod to, “the sobbing and oppressed Rosie ‘#MeToo’ Duffield”. The impacts stack inside each other like Russian dolls, from the girls who decide not to speak out about their abuse or harassment, having seen the abuse and harassment that conversation will inspire, to the remaining female MPs who are tired of having to perform their job in an invisible stab vest.
But could this be the moment when we stop looking at the victims, and instead turn to the perpetrators? Diane Abbott has called for social media companies to record the real identities of people using their platforms. “When the police try and track down people who are abusing me, they find they can’t identify them. If Twitter, Facebook and online had the people’s real name and address, I think you’d be able to crack down on this,” she said. Are they listening?
Currently, trolls wear the number of times they’ve had their Twitter accounts shut down as a medal, including it in subsequent bios – the game continues. It’s not fair to expect victims of intimidation to be responsible for managing their bullies, for cleaning up the websites messes. New measures are called for, whether that is removing anonymity, investigating anti-social web users, investing more in the internet education of children, or threatening action on the social media sites themselves. Unless a change happens, and fast, soon there will only be one sort of person in charge – loud, white, male, with skin as thick as bullet-proof glass.
Thank you to everyone who got in touch about last week’s column: “An MRI scan reveals what I thought was a migraine to be something darker”. I had hundreds of messages, each one more warm and lovely than the last. I’m relaxing into the sympathy as if a hot bath.
Email Eva at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter@EvaWiseman