Last summer, the Bank of England’s move to put an image of Jane Austen on the £10 note whipped up a violent and strange Twitterstorm. It centred on feminist activist Caroline Criado-Perez who had campaigned to highlight the fact that, with Winston Churchill set to replace Elizabeth Fry on the £5 note, no woman other than the queen would be represented on English currency. Criado-Perez became the face of the campaign to get Austen on the banknote, and, as a result, she found herself on the receiving end of a barrage of insults and threats from so-called trolls on Twitter.
The offending tweets, which ranged from mildly sexist jibes to explicit threats of rape and murder, quickly escalated, reaching up to 50 an hour. This was largely due to Criado-Perez’s refusal to heed the old social-media dictum: don’t feed the trolls. Indeed, even before the Twitterstorm hit, she had made a habit of retweeting anything nasty that people said about her and became famous for her vitriolic, profanity-laden rants aimed at her detractors. Her tendency to react in this manner made her a dream target for any desperate-to-be-noticed troll. At the height of the silly season, the media leapt on her story about being victimised by ‘trolls’.
The deeds of a tiny number of moronic tweeters rapidly became the moral panic of the summer. The idea that there was a growing epidemic of frenzied trolls lurking in the dark corners of the internet, and that they were making the web unsafe for supposedly vulnerable women, had been around for some time. However, this was the first time that the issue had hogged the front pages, prompting much handwringing among the liberal elite. Labour MP Stella Creasy argued that things said on Twitter should be treated like real-life abuse, while Owen Jones lamented that Twitter had the ability to ‘project prejudices that linger in our society’. The London talk radio station LBC even held a phone-in where trolls were invited to explain their actions live on air.
The trolls were everywhere, we were told. In a debate with Brendan O’Neill on BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight, Criado-Perez said O’Neill had mischaracterised trolls in his spiked column, The hysteria about trolls is a classic moral panic, in which he said the behaviour of ‘sad, isolated individuals’ was being blown completely out of proportion. Actually, said Criado-Perez, ‘terrifyingly’ trolls are ‘normal guys’, which shows how deep-rooted misogyny is in our society.
The media were only too happy to indulge Criado-Perez and her demonisation of ‘normal guys’. It was reported that everyone from members of our beloved armed forces to former public-school boys were involved in the epidemic of hateful trolling. The Huffington Post claimed that the Criado-Perez Twitter affair had ‘uncover[ed] a previously suppressed widespread hatred of women’.