I was noodling around on Twitter, minding my own business, when some dildo with a Guy Fawkes avatar dropped me a line to let me know that an anthropomorphic train was swiftly headed to my house to rape me.
Or, more specifically, he sent me an image macro of a character from Thomas the Tank Engine with the caption, “CHOO CHOO MOTHERFUCKER THE RAPE TRAIN’S ON ITS WAY. NEXT STOP YOU.”
It’s a rape threat. It’s menacing. It’s creepy. It’s part of a massive, sustained harassment campaign leveled at women online (particularly feminist writers) that’s been going on for years. (Gamergate is just the latest incarnation.) It’s not the “worst” rape threat I’ve ever received, if I had to rank them—please don’t make me rank them—but its intent was to make me feel unsafe because of my gender and to disrupt my work.
So I reported it. Reporting rape threats on Twitter is a time-sucking, onerous process that dominates my online life. I report abusive tweets sometimes hundreds of times per week, and I do it because I’m told it is my only recourse. It’s tedious, ineffectual paperwork, and it does little to change the toxic, misogynist culture that pervades the network.
A few days later, I received this message from Twitter Support:
Thank you for letting us know about your issue. We’ve investigated the account and the Tweets reported as abusive behavior, and have found that it’s currently not violating the Twitter Rules (twitter.com/rules).
Twitter’s abuse and harassment policy reads:
Users may not make direct, specific threats of violence against others, including threats against a person or group on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, age, or disability. Targeted abuse or harassment is also a violation of the Twitter Rules and Terms of Service.
If “the rape train’s coming for you”—directed at a woman in order to punish her for her work advocating for women—doesn’t qualify as gendered abuse, then what on earth does? What’s the point of having a harassment policy at all if it doesn’t police harassment?
Before tossing it on the pile with all the others (to be clear, not all of my reports are rejected, but a significant number are, with no discernible rhyme or reason), I tweeted a screengrab of the image with the caption, “Twitter just let me know that this doesn’t violate their rules or qualify as abusive behavior. Lighten up, ladies!”
— Madeleine Davies (@madeleine_rae) December 15, 2014
Blogger and Skepchick founder Rebecca Watson recently reported this overt, violent threat and was told it didn’t violate Twitter’s rules:
@rebeccawatson I would love to knock you the fuck out. Not because you're a female or a feminist, but because you're an enormous bitch.
— farleft (@_farleft) December 12, 2014
And when Watson reported another user for posting anime pornography with her head Photoshopped into it, Twitter threatened to suspend her account, saying that the user had reported her for harassment.
The past few weeks have been particularly baffling and grim. Conservative blogger Chuck Johnson used Twitter to openly, gleefully dox, harass, and borderline blackmail a woman he thought was the alleged UVA rape victim, inciting harassment against an entirely different, misidentified woman in the process.
Again, if that doesn’t qualify as harassment, then what the motherfuck does?
I emailed Twitter for comment and was told, “We do not comment on individual accounts, for privacy and security reasons.” The Twitter spokesman then referred me back, again, to the harassment policy.
Predictably, several men rushed in to inform me that it was “just a joke.”
“They will be completely unwilling to talk,” writer and activist Soraya Chemaly confirmed when I reached out to her. Chemaly organized the Safety and Free Speech Coalition, a network of anti-violence-against-women organizations with legal, academic, and tech expertise. So far, the coalition has been working with Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to examine and improve how they handle abuse and harassment, particularly the type of persistent, long-term, often sexually violent harassment that disproportionately affects women.