Sexual harassment, online and off, under new scrutiny in Britain

Recent tweets threatening a female MP and a prominent journalist with rape and murder set off new debate over how to deal with misogyny.

Chris Ratcliffe/Pool/Reuters
From left, MP Mary Macleod, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, MP Stella Creasy, and Caroline Criado Perez pose with the concept design for the new 10 pound note, featuring British novelist Jane Austen, at the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton, near Alton, last month. Both Ms. Creasy and Ms. Perez have received misogynistic threats over Twitter due to their advocacy of the Austen note.

A decision to place the face of the novelist Jane Austen on the Bank of England’s newly designed £10 note might seem like an unlikely prelude to murder threats, a bomb threat against a member of parliament, and a debate about what constitutes freedom of expression online.

Yet two weeks after a deluge of abuse on Twitter was directed against Caroline Criado Perez, a British journalist who campaigned for a female face to be represented on UK bank notes, perhaps the most tangible outcome has been the backlash against the type of online sexual harassment that is a too-frequent reality for women on the social media site and elsewhere on the Internet.

Ms. Perez and Stella Creasy, a London-based MP who supported Perez in the bank-note campaign, have been praised for taking a stand in the face of a torrent of abuse, including rape and bomb threats, which have also been targeted against other high-profile women on Twitter. Initially caught on the back foot in terms of its corporate response, Twitter issued an apology to the abuse victims and outlined plans for a crackdown on harassment.

As it happens, the focus on virtual harassment has also coincided with a separate fight-back against groping and harassment of women on London’s transport network. The program, named Project Guardian and launched three weeks ago, was developed in cooperation with women’s campaign groups who were asked to draft new guidelines for how police handle reports of sexual assault. More than 2,000 police have received specialist training in the program. 

Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism Project, which encourages women to share daily incidences of harassment and sexism and was one of the groups involved, speaks of a “tidal shift” going on regarding attitudes.

“Women are starting to stand up and realize that they don’t have to put up with it. It certainly feels like there is a new generation of feminism going on,” she says.

“There is a sense of real momentum at the moment, particularly among young women. As a movement, it feels very pragmatic, like people can just join in and stand up for specific things rather than necessarily feeling that they are signing up to a broad manifesto.”

At least 10 arrests were made in the first week of action by Project Guardian, which also recorded a 26 percent rise in number of reports and has involved the deployment of teams of 180 officers a day to some parts of London. The initiative, which is partly based on a similar effort in Boston, is the first of its size and is expected to be rolled out to other British cities.

Meanwhile, three people have been arrested, the latest on Wednesday, in response to the bomb and other threats on Twitter. And the company is continuing to come under pressure, from Perez and others, to roll out promised new features to make it easier for users to report abuse.

While the initial response from Twitter executives in the US were widely judged in the UK to have been poor, Twitter’s general manager in the UK apologized last week as the company updated its rules and confirmed it would introduce an in-tweet "report abuse" button on all platforms, including desktops. 

Already, however, the controversy may be having an impact on the company’s brand reputation – at least in the UK.

YouGov, a polling firm, published figures on Wednesday showing that attention – in terms of those hearing anything good or bad about Twitter – had jumped from 12 percent of the population on July 28 to 24 percent on Aug. 5. 

But the company’s "buzz score" – the percentage of positive response minus the percentage of negative response – dropped from +1 to -17 over the same period, while Twitter’s "index score," a composite of six image attributes regarding the brand, dropped from +2 to -5.

Stephan Shakespeare, YouGov’s chief executive, wrote in a blog post that the data could be interpreted in differing ways – “perception of Twitter in the UK has fallen, but usage appears unaffected.”

However, he added: “The impact does not seem to have spread beyond these shores, but what is happening in the UK could be seen as a warning sign if similar rows break out in other countries. A decline in brand perception can be a harbinger for other negative impacts, and I believe Twitter should do everything in its power to keep public opinion onside.”

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