Daily Telegraph, Monday 21 August 2017
There’s good news today for anyone who’s ever lived in fear of turning on their mobile phone or computer. From now on, prosecutors will treat threats delivered online just as seriously as offences committed face-to-face. The news was announced by the Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders, who rightly said that “hate speech has devastating effects.”
It is a brave decision. Saunders knows she will be attacked by people who dismiss online abuse as empty threats, but we’ve recently heard about the life-changing impact on a number of well-known women.
Gina Miller, the woman who won a Brexit legal challenge against the Government, has been threatened with acid attacks and said she is afraid to leave her home. Last month a man called Rhodri Phillips, also known as Lord St Davids, was jailed for 12 weeks for racially abusing Miller on social media.
The new policy covers race, religion or disability, as well as homophobic, bi-phobic and transphobic offences – and it’s absolutely right that it does so. But there is a glaring omission
Another internet troll, John Nimmo, was jailed for two years and three months in February after targeting Labour MP Luciana Berger with anti-semitic messages. He sent her a photo of a knife and a threat that she would ‘get it like Jo Cox’, a reference to the MP murdered in June last year. Berger said Nimmo’s threats had caused her “great fear and anguish.”
Unfortunately, these are not isolated cases. Official figures show a 20 per cent increase in all types of hate crime reported to the police in the first quarter of this year - but it is believed to be significantly under-reported. According to Saunders, “an increasing proportion of hate crime” is now carried out online, and she hopes to see more prosecutions and longer sentences.
This is all to the good, but many women will spot a glaring omission in the different strands of hate crime cited by the Crown Prosecution Service. The new policy covers crimes based on race, religion or disability, as well as homophobic, bi-phobic and transphobic offences – and it is absolutely right that it does so.
But there is a glaring omission: misogyny. Specifically, threats to hurt or kill women because they’re women. This has been overlooked, even though it has the potential to affect over half the population.
It also seems to be one of the most frequent forms of abuse on social media sites. Remember the torrent of rape threats aimed at Caroline Criado-Perez when she campaigned to have a woman on British banknotes? Or the man who threatened to kill the Labour MP Angela Eagle, calling her a ‘bitch’ and telling her she would die if she became leader of the Labour party? Eagle also received homophobic messages, a reminder that victims are often targeted by more than one type of abuse.
Many men appear to be goaded to fury simply by the fact of a woman expressing an opinion they don’t like. Or an opinion full-stop. Rape and death threats have become an occupational hazard for female politicians, journalists, novelists, singers – any woman who uses social media, in fact.
The reason this is so serious is that women have always had a tenuous relationship with public space. Defence barristers still demand to know why young women wear short skirts when they go out at night, perpetuating the age-old suggestion that rape victims are ‘asking for it’ if they don’t cover up in public. Some women don’t feel safe on public transport late at night or walking home from a bus stop down dark, deserted streets.
The internet is a new form of public space, and the purpose of misogynistic hate speech is to scare women out of using it. Saunders’s recognition of the effects of hate speech is welcome but she – and social media companies – need to be more aware of the specific nature and impact of misogyny.
A few months ago, when I reported a tweet from a man who wanted to see me ‘lying face-down in a ditch’, Twitter responded that it did not breach their terms and conditions, and took no action.
It’s obviously right that other online hate crimes, such as anti-semitism, will at last be treated more seriously online. But when abuse of women on social media is so common and yet not recognised as a specific offence, it sends a very dangerous message.
We know it’s linked to domestic violence in some cases, where men have threatened former partners online, and that women have been terrorised into leaving social media sites. If that isn’t recognised as a hate crime? Then there’s something wrong with the definition.