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This January, Dr. Claire Hardaker of Lancaster University’s Linguistics and English Language Department has been awarded a £200,000 grant by the Economic and Social Research Council. The funds were procured for research into the growing trends of rape and death threats on Twitter, the online micro-blogging site that has proliferated through celebrity culture and since, filtered down into mainstream use.
Since its launch, Twitter has gained an incredible 650 million users and boasts an impressive 135,000 new sign-ups everyday. With this Twitter has been dubbed as the “SMS of the Internet” by traffic site ‘alexa.com’ who rank it as the 11th most popular site on the web. However, Twitter’s recent spike in popularity has seen the site take on a whole new character. In the past, Twitter was the mouthpiece of the celebrity; a site for the oversized egos to do battle for the public’s favours, a coliseum of narcissism with a growing and jeering crowd. However, with its increasing usage among the everyday masses, Twitter has seen a transformation of its character to one of a much more malicious and sinister nature. People have begun to abuse the right of free speech to execute threats of slander and death. Two Geordie reprobates, Isabella Sorley, 23, and John Nimmo, 25, were collared and court-summoned late last year for the threats they made toward one Ms. Criado-Perez. The victim of these crimes did little more than promote the equality of women by securing at least one female, Jane Austen, to appear on the new polymer bank notes to be distributed in 2017. To this, Nimmo, brutally inferred that he would rape Criado-Perez to death for her sins whilst Sorley insisted that she would be fine “doing more jail time to see her [Criado-Perez] berried!” Yes, that was the way she spelt ‘buried’.
With the recent high profiling of cyber-bullying and the horrific consequences that can follow, it should be wholly apparent that such comments are just unacceptable. Even if such comments are made in delusional jest; death, rape or any other threats of physical violence or blackmail are crudely offensive and downright wrong. If you walked up to the traffic warden in the street and told him that you were going to kill each one of his children before forcing him to commit an act of self-immolation you would be swiftly, duly and rightly arrested. No matter how you deny the malicious intent of your remarks, the recipient may, understandably feel violated by your words.
As we all know, people say a lot of things online that they would never say to a person’s face. People find it a lot easier to voice their opinions from the keys of their laptop, than through the writing of a pen or the speech of their tongue. It’s our instant message culture; the ability to communicate a grave intent in seconds which blurs the lines between reality and fantasy. Technology robs us of the ability to see our victim physically suffering, allowing us to quickly whisk it out of the mind of conscience. I can expect that both Sorley and Nimmo will testify that they sent their malicious threats under the influence of alcohol, or out of a dark, retrospectively inappropriate humour.
But are these ‘cyber-threats’ really something unsettling and new, an archetype of the steely “Instant Messenger” culture? Or is it the way they are received which is becoming outdated? I remember the days of MSN chat, ICQ and pixelated RPGs. Internet ‘trolls’ have slipped into the mainstream media only recently, but in the darker shadows of the gamer’s world they have existed since the beginning. Why is it only now that they are facing prosecution? Is the enforcement of section 127 (1) (A) of the Communications Act 2003 (the prosecution of public electronic communication network messages which are menacing in character) going to be exclusively for those in high profile positions? And how effective will the police be in prosecuting such offenses? If the statistics are true, Criado-Perez would have faced a colossal 240 death and rape threats, yet only two people have appeared before the courts. This is outrageous. For one of the most personally directed and growing crimes there seems to almost no real resolution. With increased coverage of NSA spying and Internet paranoia, search engines like duckduckgo, which encrypt your search terms and website history, are becoming evermore popular. Even the innocent among us are deciding to hide our identities with proxies to avoid cookie advertising and search engine profiling. Bitcoin has also surged from the peripheries of drug runners, warlords and hackers to a worldwide-recognised currency that allows you to buy anything with complete anonymity.
So with greater anonymity for the user, are attempts to bring justice to those who are threatened and terrified simply a passing occurrence; a whimsical attempt to show care for the victims of an unfeeling, unregulated instant messaging culture? In the future, will we see greater repercussions for the transgressor, or simply will there be a greater onus on the user to develop a thicker skin?