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Apathy, anger and anti-trolls - how the twitter silence has made us talk

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Recent weeks have dragged internet trolls kicking, screaming and clutching their keyboards from the darkness of anonymity into the blinding spotlight of the public eye.

Twitter feeds have been saturated with the deluge of circulating threats towards campaigners, politicians and student newspaper editors, their only point in common being their gender and a desire to speak out. In response to the online harassment of Caroline Criado-Perez, MP Stella Creasy and Professor Mary Beard, many have decried the reticence of Twitter bosses to face up to the realities of online abuse, whereas others have grabbed the opportunity to speak out, and interestingly some have responded with silence.

The twitter silence was broken this morning following twenty four hours of inactivity observed by supporters as varied as writers, comedians and even magicians such as Derren Brown. The silence was launched by Caitlin Moran who wanted to show her support for comrades facing up to 50 death or rape threats an hour, by showing what Twitter would be like “if trolls overran this place.”

When faced with online abusers protected by the blanket of anonymity, people have been divided as to how to effectively halt the wave of harassment that has inundated Twitter. Following her ordeal, Caroline Criado-Perez has been swamped by orders to ignore trolling: “don't feed the trolls, just ignore them, there's nothing you can do about that ... bollocks to that. I don't want to live in that world."

The twitter silence, therefore, has been plagued by controversy: many have viewed it as “self-righteous feminist sermonising” reducing those participating to the status of “bores” whereas some have called it an effective means of triggering public interest.

Professor Mary Beard’s abrupt end to her twitter silence drew even greater attention to the violence of the virtual world: “planned to be off twitter, but I’ve had more threats this morning (rape and worse). It is still going on. Tried to report to Twitter, failed.”

Yet she was not unanimously met with sympathy. Times food critic Giles Coren argued she had left herself exposed to abuse after continuing to check her account: “but isn’t the point that if you’re not looking it’s not there? If you weren’t on, you wouldn’t have seen them? Then they’d stop.”

However, fighting victim-blaming and the sexism that underlies it has been a central motivation of the campaign. Criticising women facing threats that go much further than misguided sexist taunting but rather delve into the muddier waters of abuse, seemingly proves the necessity of the whole debate about online misogyny in the first place.

As argued by Criado-Perez, we need to face up to the uncomfortable reality that social media has empowered people to “behave in way they wouldn't face to face” and frankly, our chosen means to fight against that is immaterial. It is true that the symbolism of silence is important, but regardless of any questions we may have had about the methods, it is undeniable that in their silence, campaigners have succeeded in making us talk.

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