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Twitter reviewing abuse procedure after British activist inundated with death, rape threats

Caroline Criado-Perez, right, was targeted with online rape and death threats for advocating the use of Jane Austen’s likeness on the £10 note.


When the Bank of England announced plans to put Jane Austen on the country's £10 note, it should have been a time of celebration for Caroline Criado-Perez. Instead it has turned into a social-media nightmare for Ms. Criado-Perez that is now pushing Twitter to change how it operates.

The 28-year-old university student had campaigned for months to put women back on British banknotes and Bank of England Governor Mark Carney praised her efforts when he unveiled the new Austen bill last Wednesday. But Ms. Criado-Perez was soon subject to a barrage of abuse on Twitter that included hundreds of tweets, up to 50 an hour, threatening violence, death and sexual assault. Other tweets provided an address for Ms. Criado-Perez's home, which luckily turned out to be inaccurate.

Instead of ignoring the onslaught, Ms. Cirado-Perez hit back. She filed a complaint with the police and went after Twitter, calling on the social-media giant to immediately introduce a "report abuse" button to make it easier for users to stop online assaults. An online petition advocating the button was also launched on Saturday and now has more than 65,000 signatures. On Monday, Twitter said it was considering changes in its reporting policies.

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"It's sadly not unusual to get this kind of abuse, but I've never seen it get as intense or aggressive as this," Ms. Criado-Perez said Monday. "It's infuriating that the price you pay for standing up for women is 24 hours of rape threats. We are showing that by standing together we can make a real difference. We made the Bank of England change its mind, we can do the same with Twitter."

Others have joined the cause and some have called for a Twitter boycott. Stella Creasy, a Labour MP who was also part of the Austen campaign, has filed a complaint with police about abusive tweets she has received. "This is about hatred of women and hatred of women who speak up," Ms. Creasy told the BBC on Monday. "And indeed, some of those people sending the messages have been absolutely explicit about that."

Tony Wang, the general manager for Twitter in Britain, said the company is considering changes and acts quickly when concerns are raised. "We encourage users to report an account for violation of the Twitter rules by using one of our report forms," he said Monday. "Also, we're testing ways to simplify reporting, within a tweet by using the 'report tweet' button in our iPhone app and on mobile web. We will suspend accounts that, once reported to us, are found to be in breach of our rules."

But policing social media is difficult. Twitter operates in dozens of countries and some of those who allegedly attacked Ms. Criado-Perez and others live outside Britain, making it almost impossible for police to go after them. Few police forces have the resources to monitor Twitter content and many observers have said that any crackdown on comments could infringe on free speech, something that is anathema to Twitter.

Currently a Twitter user who wants to report a harassing tweet must follow a series of steps, fill out a short form and send it to Twitter with the offending comment. Ms. Criado-Perez has said that process doesn't work when someone is receiving a constant stream of abusive Tweets. She wants a simpler system that will alert Twitter to problems faster.

Ms. Criado-Perez spoke with Twitter officials Monday night to discuss possible options. She has also insisted that there is a difference between tweets that criticize her and those that threaten violence.

She can claim some success so far. On Sunday, police in Manchester announced that in response to her complaint they had arrested a 21-year-old man on suspicion of harassment. But even that has not stopped the tweets. By Monday afternoon, Ms. Criado-Perez had received this tweet: "I will find you."

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