Voices: Is this the end of the Twitter pile-on? If so, I’m delighted

·4-min read
The endless criticism that comes from a Twitter pile-on takes an emotional toll (Getty)
The endless criticism that comes from a Twitter pile-on takes an emotional toll (Getty)

I watched in dismay as hundreds of tweets appeared in my notification panel. Tweet after tweet, all criticising me, from “delusional b***h” and “lying c**t” to “fake doctor” and “failed journo”. For a moment, I thought that Twitter had broken and I was receiving someone else’s messages. But then I realised that these angry people were addressing me in their furious commentary.

It took hours of non-stop abuse and criticism – including “needs her head kicking in” and “her kids should be placed in care” – before I learned that a man with 11.2k followers had used the “quote tweet” function to share an article I’d written, with a disparaging comment encouraging his followers to “educate” the “left-wing gutter journo”. With quite literally hundreds of aggressive messages, I was forced to come off Twitter for two days to avoid the hateful content.

I’ve been the subject of countless targeted online attacks since then, but nowadays I rarely bother to track down what’s caused it, unless someone is directly threatening physical violence such as a stabbing or shooting. Nonetheless, the seemingly endless criticism that comes from a Twitter pile-on does take its emotional toll. I often find myself questioning why users frequently target me instead of someone else, as I genuinely make a concerted effort to stick to the facts in my articles.

It’s unsurprising that the government’s announcement that trolls could face two years in prison for sending messages or posting content that causes psychological harm came as a welcome relief to me. I’m pleased to hear that the forthcoming Online Safety Bill will create new offences, in the hope of combatting abuse and hatred on the internet.

Over the last 48 hours, I’ve spoken to many women who share this relief including politicians, doctors and fellow journalists. They’re sick of the abuse that comes with sharing their work online and they’re ready for a change.

It’s not about wanting the right to never be offended, like some critics suggest – I welcome constructive criticism and debate. Instead, it’s the misogynistic hate targeted at me on an almost daily basis. There are often messages with violent gender-based threats including rape and murder. I regularly hear that I’m a “county lines sympathiser” or “crack whore”, in response to articles on heroin-based treatment for people with drug addictions.

Within the last week alone, I’ve been called “a criminal”, “dirty Marxist c**t” and “drug dealer’s side-piece.” A Twitter user shared my home address and commented that I live alone with a two-year-old, while another said he hopes my child “dies of an overdose”. I’ve reported these comments to the police, but I sense that the likelihood of any criminal conviction is low – the officer was very sympathetic, but commented that the law in this area is “not really fit for purpose”.

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I’ve previously spoken openly about my experiences of supporting an ex-boyfriend during his remand for alleged drug importation offences. Shockingly, I receive huge amounts of abuse directly referring to this experience on a daily basis. It’s impossible for me to write an evidence-based article about drug supply and organised crime without becoming the subject of a sustained campaign of misogynistic online abuse with comments such as “lazy criminal” or “deserves to be banged up like her ex”. All too often, the comments say “a woman like that doesn’t deserve kids”, “her children are future drug dealers” or “it’d be karma if her kids overdose”.

The sheer volume of this aggressive rhetoric is normalising violence against women and other minorities, research from Amnesty International and the United Nations shows. In the last 18 months alone, I’ve been the subject of an attempted stabbing and watched someone smash my phone. So it’s unsurprising that I’ve often questioned my personal safety after becoming the target of such sustained online abuse.

More recently, I’ve been surprised to learn that many of these social media accounts belong to people in professional occupations, whether it’s the 21-year old trainee Met officer, the criminal law solicitor, or the international human rights barrister, all of whom started Twitter “pile-ons” targeting me in the last week.

But this online abuse against women journalists is designed to belittle and shame. Perpetrators seek to discredit female commentators professionally, in order to induce fear and retreat. In my opinion, this amounts to an attack on democracy and media freedom. We mustn’t let it become normalised or even tolerated as an inevitable consequence of social media discourse, which is why I welcome the Online Safety Bill and refuse to be silenced by the abuse.

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