Charlotte Hannah
July 29, 2013

Should Online Rape Threats Result in Real-Life Arrests?

Photo credit: Caroline Criado-Perez

Photo credit: Caroline Criado-Perez

A 21-year-old man has been arrested after allegedly threatening to rape prominent journalist and women’s rights activist Caroline Criado-Perez on Twitter.

“The arrest is in connection with an allegation of malicious communications received by officers in Camden on Thursday, July 25,” says a spokesperson for Scotland Yard.

Unfortunately, he’s just one of many who’ve sent abusive and threatening messages to Criado-Perez in response to her successful bid to have Jane Austen featured on Britain’s £10 bill. (Yes, this is real life.)

Criado-Perez’s campaign came after the Bank of England announced it would replace Elizabeth Fry with Winston Churchill on the £5 bill, which would make the Queen the only woman on a sterling bank note. One would think something as inoffensive as suggesting women have a small place on national currency wouldn’t provoke a misogynist firestorm, but it did.

According to Criado-Perez, immediately after the Bank of England announced bills with a woman’s face on them would be rolled out in 2017, she started receiving “about 50 abusive tweets an hour for 12 hours.” These tweets included rape threats and death threats among the usual sexist garbage.

In response, more than 60,000 people have signed a petition urging Twitter to create a Report Abuse button. Twitter hasn’t officially responded, though Tony Wang, Twitter UK’s general manager, has said the company is working on ways to “simplify reporting.”

The incident has provoked a flurry of discussion and debate online. Should Twitter be more responsible about protecting its users from hate and abuse? Just how prevalent is online abuse, anyway? (Answer: Seriously? Are you paying attention?)

Others question whether a rape threat made online should result in an arrest. Some think not. Tanya Gold at the Guardian writes, “misogynists on Twitter should be shamed, rather than criminalized.”

I say, why not both?

People seem to have this strange idea that the Internet is somehow different than the “real world” – that it’s less real and less serious, and that they’re less accountable for the things they say and do there. It’s not. I once heard this expressed in a humorous way, though regrettably I don’t remember where I heard it:

What if people talked about the phone or another mode of communication the way they talk about the Internet?

“I hope you get raped.”
“What? How could you say that?”
“Calm down, geez. It’s just the telephone.”

This shouldn’t be difficult. Things said on the Internet should be treated with the same seriousness and consideration as things said in person. If you walk up to a woman on the street or call her on the telephone and tell her you’re going to rape her, or that you hope someone else rapes her, or that she should die, you get arrested. What’s the difference between speaking the words and writing them from behind a computer screen? Nothing – other than that it’s easier for a coward to do the latter.

This isn’t a free speech issue. Free speech protects people who want to say awful but general things like, “I hate women,” or “Women deserve to be raped.” That’s where the shame Gold writes about comes in. That’s where our only recourse is to shout back or shame or ignore. But when those same words are directed at a specific woman or women, it’s no longer free speech – it’s criminal.