A hard-won fight to get the writer Jane Austen’s face on a bank note in England was greeted with rape threats targeting the effort’s main champion, Caroline Criado-Perez, cofounder of the Women’s Room.
Ms. Criado-Perez said the day after the decision was announced was the day she received her first threat, on Twitter. “And this descended into two and a half weeks of continual rape and death threats. They were incredibly graphic, incredibly violent and very specific about which parts of my body were going to have what happened to them—very gruesome things that were being suggested,” she told the Global Observatory.
Because the attacks were happening on Twitter, the perpetrators acted with abandon. “A lot of the people who were attacking me clearly felt that they could act with impunity—that no one was going to do anything about it. One of the men said, ‘Call the cops. We’ll rape them too.’ They felt that there was going to be no come back for their actions.”
Eventually a Labour politician Stella Creasy got involved and put Ms. Criado-Perez in touch with a stalking advocate who works with the police, because “some of the men had become very obsessed with me and were now tracking all my movements online, looking into my family and work history.”
As a result of all this, Twitter introduced a new one-click button to report abuse on every post, though it took quite a bit of effort. “They certainly were eventually talking to me about these issues, and I am still in contact with Twitter,” she said.
“I think, to a certain extent, the message is getting through, but perhaps not quite as quickly as I would like. And I think also there are a lot of cultural barriers up. I suppose what I’m saying is that I think that social media companies tend to be run by people who don’t tend to experience this kind of aggression and oppression.”
She said social media companies need to take upon themselves to ensure that their platforms ensure free speech for everyone, and not just the people who shout the loudest. “They are creating an amazing tool, and it’s a tool that can make them a lot of money. But they’re giving themselves a lot of power here. And I hate to use an old cliché, but with power does come responsibility.”
The interview was conducted by Warren Hoge, Senior Adviser for External Relations at the International Peace Institute.
Listen to interview (or download mp3):
Warren Hoge: Our guest in the Global Observatory today is Caroline Criado-Perez, a freelance journalist, broadcaster, and feminist campaigner who is cofounder of the Women’s Room, an organization that campaigns for more women experts in the media. She also started and ran the high-profile Keep Women on Banknotes campaign in the United Kingdom, which attracted global attention when she ended up in the center of a Twitter abuse storm receiving crude rape and death threats after the Bank of England decided to put the image of the nineteenth-century romantic novelist of manners, Jane Austen, on British bank notes.
Caroline, though your situation got broad coverage, many people may not know the story, and it is an amazing story. So please go back to the beginning and tell us why you launched the women on bank notes campaign in the first place.
Caroline Criado-Perez: Well, basically what happened was that the Bank of England announced the new face of the new five-pound note, and that was going to be Winston Churchill; and I realized that as a result Winston Churchill being on the new five pound note, that meant that the one woman we had on notes, Elizabeth Fry, was going to be taken off. And that meant that there was going to be an all male and in fact all white line-up on our bank notes. And I felt that this sent a really damaging message about the contribution of anyone who wasn’t a white man to British society and British history. And the bank of England themselves acknowledged the role that bank notes play in shaping our cultural narrative, and I was just really concerned that here was yet another decision about who we are going to celebrate in the public sphere that was going to be excluding women from it.
So I started the campaign, challenging the bank of England’s decision, suggesting that they needed to review their selection procedures because they were clearly inadequate. I mean, if you end up with all men on bank notes, it suggests that your selection procedures aren’t really thinking about the wide gamut of people’s contributions to society. And it was fantastic. In a way, it was quite sad to see how hard I had to fight for such a relatively minor thing as asking for a woman’s face to be on bank notes. Three months of hard campaigning raising over thirteen-thousand pounds for a legal challenge, and a lot of stonewalling from the bank, but eventually they did agree that they needed to review their selection procedures.
WH: Do you remember the reaction of Mervyn King, the then governor of the bank?
CCP: Oh yes, I do remember the reaction of Mervyn King. Mervyn King’s reaction was initially very dismissive and quite patronizing. He said that the Queen was on all the bank notes. And there were a number of issues with that. For a start, the suggestion that I would start a campaign without ever having looked at a banknote and noted that the Queen was on all of them, and also indicating a total failure to engage with the type of debate that I was trying to have, which is how we value women in our society. The Queen is a woman, but she’s not there by virtue of being a woman. She’s there by virtue of being the monarch. She’d be there if she were a woman or not, she would also be there if she were an effective monarch or not. She’s there because of her role, not because of anything she’s achieved.
And all the people who were on the other side of the bank notes were people who we agreed as a society had achieved great things and deserved to be honored. And a failure to include women in that list was very troubling to me and I felt indicative of a culture in which women aren’t celebrated and women aren’t recognized, and in my opinion, also leads to a culture in which women are not expected to be in the public sphere because we don’t see women very much in the public sphere. And when we don’t see women in the public sphere, it means women who do appear in the public sphere attract a lot of abuse, which is of course what ended up happening to me.
WH: Now, the Bank of England gets a new governor, the first non-Briton. I should point out a North American, a Canadian, and he decides to put the image of Jane Austen on the bank notes. At that point, you probably thought you’d had some success, but then what happened?
CCP: Yeah, I did. I mean, that was just a completely fantastic day. I was delighted with the choice of Jane Austen because I think she’s a fantastic novelist and also I think she’s one of our earliest feminists. But some people didn’t take very kindly to the decision. And the day after the decision was announced and it picked up quite a lot of media coverage, I received my first rape threat. And this descended into two and a half weeks of continual rape and death threats. They were incredibly graphic, incredibly violent and very specific about which parts of my body were going to have what happened to them—very gruesome things that were being suggested.
Sometimes it was lone individuals acting, although, obviously, they had seen what was going on, so it was partly a sort of group mentality. But at times, there was a real sort of mob element to it with people feeding off each other. People talking about how they were together going to rape me and how fun it was going to be. And there was a sense of mutual reinforcement within this group that this was a sort of game, that it was it was really fun. Generally, the people who were acting in a mob were not quite as explicit and graphic as the people who acted on their own. It was a pretty horrendous time. And it was at its peak for about two and a half weeks. The last one I got was about two months after the announcement. And that was just a stream of rape and death threats from an anonymous source. So it was a pretty sad ending to what had been a triumph.
WH: Did women come forth in the UK on your side? And I wanted to ask you specifically about one, that is, Stella Creasy, the Labour politician?
CCP: Yes they did, and Stella in particular was just fantastic. I really don’t know how I would have got through it without her because she was there not only as an amazing support for me emotionally and psychologically. She also was incredibly pragmatic and went and spoke to the police, went and spoke to counselors, got me in touch with a stalking advocate who works with the police, because some of the men had become very obsessed with me and were now tracking all my movements online, looking into my family and work history. She sort of made it her roll to look after me—make sure I was eating, make sure I was sleeping—but also took a lot of the pressure away from me of having to push the police to actually take action. That was still a stress for me because I felt that the police needed to take action, and they weren’t, and they were needing her to push. But it was really good to have someone there to act for me in that regard.
WH: Now Twitter, as a result of all this, introduced a new one click button to report abuse on every post. Tell me how that works. And also tell me, is it working?
CCP: Well, it’s definitely an improvement on the previous system, which involved having to go to a completely separate part of Twitter website that most people didn’t even know existed. And you’d have to fill out a really long form with things like the date and time of the tweet, who had sent the tweet, what the Twitter handle was, the contents of the tweet, all things that really should and could be automated and auto-populated. That has now happened. What has also happened is that you now have a button on each tweet. Unfortunately, it’s not a one click button, you have to click on three dots and that brings out a dropdown list and then you click on report tweet. So it’s not as seamless as it could be, and also it’s not perhaps as high-profile as it could be.
And the reason I say that is because I think that one of the really important things that needs to happen to combat this kind of abuse is shaping a context where it’s clear that is not accepted. A lot of the people who were attacking me clearly felt that they could act with impunity—that no one was going to do anything about it. One of the men said, “Call the cops. We’ll rape them too.” They felt that there was going to be no come back for their actions. And part of that is the culture online that says that anything goes. And so I think it would be really important and be a good step to make the report-tweet button just a one click process that takes you to this form. There are certain things you have to fill out, like saying why it was a problem. I think that’s important because we have to recognize that abuse of the system could happen. We don’t want genuine reports to be drowned out by lots of malicious ones.
So, as I said, I think it’s a good first step. But it doesn’t really go far enough—and there are three main reasons, I think. One of them is that it’s still not a solution for someone who’s going through what I went through. If you are receiving up to 50 rape threats an hour, you can’t really be expected to report each one individually. It’s still going to take quite a few minutes and when you expand that to volume, it’s going to take up all your day. And that’s going to impact your ability to work, your ability to eat, your ability to sleep, your ability to lead a normal life, basically. So not only are you having your mind invaded by all these messages, you’re also not being able to function and do all the things you need to do. So there needs to be a system that recognizes that the Internet, while it’s an enabler of great campaigns and brings people together for good, it also brings people together in mobs and violent and aggressive mobs. And so there needs to be recognition of that, and a way of dealing with that.
I think the other issues are probably things like social media companies not necessarily understanding stalking and the way that people can be targeted online by having their movements tracked. So for example, you can block someone on Twitter but all that means is that you can’t see that there are tweets to you. They can still track you, they can still incite others to harass you, and indeed many people did do that to me.
And I suppose the final thing is that people are able to set up multiple accounts and that contravenes Twitter’s rules. But they have no way of enforcing that. There’s not really any point of having a law or rule if you can’t enforce it. So if they have that rule, they need to find a way of making sure that if someone’s account is suspended, they can’t immediately set up another account and start harassing the person that they got suspended for harassing, which again is exactly what happened to me.
WH: You said that you felt social media had a great responsibility, and I think you just told us some of the things you think it ought to be doing. Is social media reaching out to you? Are they asking for your advice and assistance? Do you think you’re getting through?
CCP: They certainly were eventually talking to me about these issues and I am still in contact with Twitter. I think to a certain extent the message is getting through but perhaps not quite as quickly as I would like. And I think also there are a lot of cultural barriers up. I suppose what I’m saying is that I think that social media companies tend to be run by people who don’t tend to experience this kind of aggression and oppression. And therefore there’s a certain lack of understanding. So even when they are talking to me, and I’m explaining to them about the type of things that are happening and the type of things that need to be done, there’s a certain lack of will to act that needs to be got over.
Maybe the main thing social media companies need to do is they need to address this culture of thinking that freedom of speech is absolute and of thinking that it’s not their problem and there’s not really much that they can do. They are creating an amazing tool and it’s a tool that can make them a lot of money. But they’re giving themselves a lot of power here. And I hate to use an old cliché, but with power does come responsibility. I think social media companies, perhaps because they are quite young, haven’t quite grown up yet and recognized the responsibility that they need to take upon themselves to ensure that their platforms ensure free speech for everyone and not just the people who shout the loudest.
WH: Finally, I wanted to ask you about your movement, you organization. On your website, you ask, “Are you a woman? Are you an expert in your field? Do you feel underrepresented in the media?” And you answer it by saying, “you should.” then you have a very interesting passage about expertise and experience. What’s the difference between those two, and why is it relevant to your message for women?
CCP: I think that in some ways we create a false distinction between expertise and experience, and we think that expertise can only come with formal qualifications. But as the Norwegian Foreign Minister said, the Nazi doctor who came up with the idea about all the people that the Nazis wanted to oppress was someone with great qualifications. And we would perhaps question that expertise and the use to which it was put. I suppose what I was trying to say with my website is that for a start, formal qualifications don’t guarantee an informed opinion. But also that experience is sometimes crucial to understanding something.
So, for example, you could be someone who studied gender relations but unless you’re someone who—like a woman—has grown up understanding that when you go out of the house, If you dress a certain way, if you go into a certain neighborhood, If you say certain things, you feel that you’re going to be under threat of rape. And you live with that threat of rape every day. You’re going to have a very different understanding of how to combat that threat of rape. And what it means for a woman to live with it. so I suppose what I’m trying to say is that we shouldn’t dismiss experience as not as important as someone who’s got a certificate on their wall because sometimes it can really add to the debate and it is part of the debate and should be.
WH: Caroline Criado-Perez, thank you for my much for talking to us in the Global Observatory.