dont-feed-the-trollStrange times on Twitter.  What seemed like a well-supported, perfectly reasonable and ultimately successful campaign to make sure at least one of our banknotes has a woman on it (apart from the Queen) has been slightly overshadowed by rape threats made to one of the women who launched it.

Caroline Criado-Perez became the subject of a hateful campaign of abuse from some Twitter users who made increasingly violent and specific sexual threats against her. The MP Stella Creasy was also threatened and other women, such as Caitlin Moran spoke of their own experience of rape threats on Twitter.

So depressing it’s hard to know where to start. But first let’s agree a few terms.

The abusive tweeters have been described as trolls, but I am not sure that is helpful. Trolling can cover a range of behaviours, many annoying, many legal, and only some going over the top and becoming harassing, distressing and illegal.

Those who enjoy trolling, suggested the reaction to the rape threat tweets was a threat to wider freedom of speech, and in effect their freedom to troll.

I think their argument is spurious. There is a world of difference between typical trolling and making a specific threat of sexual violence against an individual – Ms Criado-Perez was told what time she would be attacked and specifically what violence would be done to her.

Freedom of speech does not encompass a freedom to threaten someone with rape – anyone who thinks it does clearly does not understand what freedom is.

The threats made were criminal offences, the police are involved now, there has been one arrest and there are likely to be more. Trials will follow in due course.

What I think is interesting is the way that once women had started talking about these threats, it actually resulted in more threats being made from multiple users creating multiple accounts for the purpose @killcreasynow was one example (suspended now, or else I would not name it and give it the publicity).

It seems that the very act of reporting abuse can trigger more abuse.

I am not for one moment suggesting that people receiving such abuse – be it sexual threats, racist, anti-gay or LGBT abuse, should not act upon it for fear of attracting more. But it appears to be a phenomenon peculiar to Twitter that talking about abuse, as well as garnering support and highlighting the issue, can also lead to one becoming more of a target, clearly adding to the distress.

Which made me ponder why and I think there might be a couple of contributing factors.

Firstly there is Twitter’s amplification effect. Word spreads fast there. abusive attacks in the real world can lead to repeat offences and copycat attacks – an offender hears of an attack and decides he will do something similar, it is a trigger. Just as the Internet unites like-minded communities of those interested in, say, knitting, football, opera, so it connects those who are interested in being abusive.

They see each other’s abusive messages and in their minds it legitimises their behaviour, or at least reduces the risk of detection and prosecution. They think there is safety in numbers.We saw it with those who took to Facebook to incite riots, those who targeted and named sexual offence victims and those who published pictures purporting to be the killers of James Bulger. It is only when the police come knocking at their door that they realise their mistake.

The question is the best, the most effective, way to respond to abuse. I’m not sure that responding and retweeting it is the most effective way to deal with it.

These abusers are very often seeking attention and so they target someone with a relatively large number of followers, or a high profile, because they crave the attention, albeit negative, that might attract.

I am not criticising the actions of those who have received abuse. I have never been the victim of such attention myself and far be it from me to tell someone what they should do late at night when they are subject to such vile messages.

The idea of an abuse button may seem attractive, and certainly reporting threatening messages should be a simple matter. But you only have to consider the vast numbers of tweets every hour of the day to realise this would be very difficult to implement effectively.

There are some communities engaged in debates so furious the abuse button would be pressed all the time. Who would begin to sift these messages for the genuinely threatening?

I think first we should see how the law deals with the present situation. Twitter accounts have been reported to the police, one arrest has been made already, other may follow. Before we ask for legislation, let’s see what existing laws can do to tackle this.

This post originally appeared on the David Banks Media Consultancy Blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks