My experience of cyberbullying
This article contains themes which some students may find difficult.
How it began
It started the day after I’d won my campaign. For three months I had been fronting a campaign for the Bank of England to reinstate female historical figures on their banknotes. And one day in July, the Bank finally caved. There was an explosion of media coverage; we were in all the papers, on all the radio stations; on all the channels — even international media covered it. My Twitter feed went into overdrive — I got so many messages of congratulation that my phone battery wore out in about an hour.
But things changed the next day, Thursday. I got my first rape threat. And then another. They started slowly at first and then gathered in speed, frequency and number. By Friday my Twitter mentions were a constantly updating stream of terrifyingly explicit and graphic rape and death threats. These anonymous people told me they would track me down and find me. They detailed exactly what they would do to me. What tools they would use. Which parts of me would be mutilated, slashed, burned, whipped, cut off. How I would beg to die — how I ultimately would.
Can you take action?
I reported the threats to the police as soon as they came in — I hadn’t actually realised that I could, but friends, horrified by what was being sent to me, told me I could and should. It was only four days later that the police brought me in to the station to take a statement; in the meantime they had amassed over 300 A4 pages of threats made against me. They couldn’t tell me who these people were, where they lived, what they were capable of. They told me they had evidence that the people harassing me were trying to track me down. They told me that I should eventually expect someone to find me.
Emails started coming in. I started to jump every time the doorbell went, every time my phone rang. I went into fight or flight mode. I was constantly on edge. Everything felt like a threat; everyone seemed like a potential attacker. I was scared to go out of my house. I moved out briefly, before the police installed a panic alarm in my house.
And then they started looking for the people who were sending me these threats — these people who found my voice so threatening that they had to terrify me into silence. They never found most of them. They never found the man who told me he would take a blowtorch to my genitals. They never found the man who told me he would pistol whip me and then burn me in front of my children. They never found the man who told me he had a sniper rifle aimed at my head and asked for my last words. These men are still out there, no doubt trying to terrorise other women into shutting up.
Of course, the accounts that sent me the threats were shut down by Twitter, but there was nothing in place to stop them from setting up another one as soon as they lost their original one. And this was what many of those who targeted me did — including two of the men who were ultimately prosecuted and imprisoned for the part they played in the campaign against me.
Isn't it just freedom of speech?
I’m often asked if I stand against freedom of speech. I don’t. I believe people should have the right to disagree with me, to argue with me, to insult me — although I reserve the right to think little of those whose argument amounts to little more than personal insults. However, freedom of speech is not about silencing those with whom you disagree. But that is exactly what those who were threatening me with rape, with mutilation, with death, were doing. They didn’t like what I had to say, so they decided to try to frighten me into shutting up. That is not them exercising their freedom of speech. It is them trying to take away mine.
But while what happened to me was extreme and horrific, I was luckier than most. The police did investigate my case. Some of those who were trying to silence me with their threats were prosecuted, and restraining orders have been imposed upon them. Today, I feel a little bit safer.
How do we protect the right to free speech and what are the issues that we face doing so?
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