On 7th January, I made a remark on Twitter which with hindsight was - unwise. Well, ok, it was worse than unwise, it was stupid. I did not think about the consequences. It never occurred to me that issuing that tweet would lead to three weeks of sustained and vicious personal abuse.
For obvious reasons, I'm not going to repeat it here. All I will say about it is that it concerned the sex attacks in Cologne and other German cities at New Year, and it was part of a long Twitter conversation with several people.
And yes, I know the difference between criticism and abuse. I am not afraid of disagreement. On the contrary, I welcome it. I am known for having heated arguments with people on Twitter. It can be uncomfortable for the onlookers, but I learn from those arguments and I almost always finish on good terms with the person I am arguing with. But obscene comments ("she likes Muslim dick") and disparaging remarks about my appearance (ugly), my age (old), my supposed race (Jewish, or a Muslim man in drag) and my alleged beliefs (Liberal lefty fascist feminist) are not "disagreement", they are personal abuse. Alleging that I approve of criminal behaviour ("@Frances_Coppola loves rape of white girls by Arab men") is not "constructive criticism", it is defamation.
At the time, I thought what I said was reasonable. But the watchers thought otherwise. They leapt on it like a pack of wolves. The tweet was retweeted, reweeted and retweeted again, with ever more unpleasant comments and criticisms. Most expressed outrage at my suggestion that someone other than refugees might have done this. But often the reasons for the outrage, far from being rational, were along the lines of "Muslims are rapists and you are a rape enabler", or "refugees are rapists and you are a terrible person for protecting them". Some even accused me - bizarrely - of blaming the women concerned.
I tried again and again to explain my point. But my attempts at explanation fell on deaf ears. The Twittermob did not want to know. They were furious and out for blood. Not only this tweet, but others too were screencapped and circulated - a "selection" of my tweets which reinforced the idea that I was some kind of lunatic conspiracy theorist, or worse, someone whose view of justice was so skewed that I regarded protecting refugees as more important than identifying and prosecuting sex attackers. Nothing could be further from the truth. The WHOLE POINT was that I wanted the real perpetrators of this crime brought to justice. Clearly I explained this extraordinarily badly. But when those with agendas can select the comments that can be used to support their case and discard those that do not, it is all too easy for views expressed in a public forum such as Twitter to be fatally twisted.
As the tweet went viral, it attracted the attention of the American far right.
By "far right", I mean those who believe that white people should rule the earth and that other races are inferior. The hardcore racist and Jew-hater Andrew Auernheimer (twitter name @rabite, have a look at the timeline if you have a strong stomach) screenshot my tweet and told me he would make sure it never disappeared from circulation:
He meant it. He repeatedly circulated the tweet to his 29,500 followers.
Not only that, but he decided to take what he thought was my job, too. He found out that I write for Forbes. Suddenly I became not just "financial writer", but "Forbes journalist". I am not, but no matter, no-one cares about the difference between "journalist" and "contributor". Someone created a standard email complaining about me and demanding my dismissal, which was sent to Forbes by hundreds of people. Fortunately, Forbes - who have always made it clear that contributors do not in any way represent them - ignored the emails.
But incorrect though it is, "Forbes journalist" has become a meme. The Infowars account @Prisonplanet tweeted the screen shot of my tweet with a comment saying "Forbes journalist wins herp derp of 2016 so far.". That went to another 114,000 people, who retweeted it in turn and.....Try as I might, I now cannot convince people that I am not a journalist.
If I WERE a journalist, I might have had rather more protection: the media does try to give its staff some protection from online abuse, and Twitter verification gives journalists some ability to filter out trolls and abusers. But I'm not employed by mainstream media, I don't have legal or management protection, my Twitter account is my own personal account and Twitter does not see fit to verify it. The Twitter community has dubbed me a journalist, but I have none of the privileges of a real journalist. So when the American racist right attacked in force, I had no defence.
Maybe I've led a sheltered life, but I had never before encountered hardcore racism on such a scale. I've encountered racism, of course - dammit, I worked for a while as a housing officer on one of the roughest estates in London. But I'd never seen anything like this. Not only anti-Muslim tweets - though the murderous* term "kebab" was new to me - but also anti-black and anti-Semitic tweets were directed to me, many of them obscene and some of them violent. I was described as a "filthy Jewess", and told to "get gassed, yid" and to "put a gun in my mouth". There were also helpful suggestions that I would benefit from being raped by a Muslim, and - inevitably, since I am neither young nor pretty - the comforting observation that no man would want to rape me.
This last speaks volumes about the attitude of these people to women. Civilised people do not judge women's worth by their attractiveness to rapists. Their outrage had nothing to do with the rights of women - indeed many of them were rabidly anti-feminist. No, it was all about "whitey". They were appalled at the idea that "their" women could be attacked by men from inferior races, and even more appalled that I dared suggest that white men might behave in the same way, even though the obscene language they used suggested that they were only too familiar with such behaviour. These were cavemen, through and through. And they all supported Donald Trump. God help America.
When something like this happens, you find out who your friends really are. And surprisingly, among those who were most vocal in my support were some who had been severely critical of my original tweet. They did not agree with what I had said - they still don't - but they were absolutely going to defend my right to say it. THAT is free speech. Not the faux "you can say whatever you like, but if we don't like it we will silence you" of the self-proclaimed "free speech" supporters who follow the likes of Milo Yannopoulos (@Nero on twitter).
I blocked hundreds of people, I think. I had to block instead of mute, because they were feeding off my timeline, retweeting and screencapping new tweets as I made them. But in a way, blocking made matters worse. They treated being blocked as a trophy, crowing about it and circulating screen prints of the block screen. I became known for blocking people - me, the person who has always hated blocking and feels bad about doing it. I started to receive tweets asking if I was turned on by blocking people (no, I won't repeat here exactly what was said).
Eventually, on the advice of some of my critical but supportive followers, I protected my tweets. I hated doing it: it felt like giving in. And the Twittermob hated it too. They raged about "bitch has protected her tweets!" @PrisonPlanet circulated a screenshot of the protected screen with a comment saying "Forbes journalist retreats to her safe space". Of course, it wasn't all that "safe", since I continued to receive abusive comments. I routinely blocked the originators and reported threatening tweets, and Twitter suspended a few of those accounts for breaking the rules. But at least locking the account stopped them feeding off my timeline: I could talk to my followers without my words being seized upon, twisted and circulated, and I could prevent sockpuppet accounts from following me in order to troll my timeline and harass me. And eventually things started to calm down.
After a week, most of the abuse had stopped and I unlocked my account again. Using a locked account has a cost for anyone who is promoting their own work on their Twitter account, or even just issuing other information: you cannot retweet protected tweets, so items simply don't circulate as they would from an unlocked account. So both I and my followers wanted the account unlocked. When I unlocked it, I was promptly trolled, of course, but it wasn't as bad as before: it was easily dealt with by judicious use of blocking, muting and occasionally reporting. I've continued to receive abusive tweets ever since, as the screenshot of the original tweet has continued to circulate.
But the fact that the screenshot of the original tweet is still circulating means it can be used by the press and by writers, even though I deleted the original over two weeks ago. It was quoted by James Delingpole in Breitbart, and misinterpreted (though not quoted) by Deborah Orr in the Guardian. Auernheimer was right: my ill-considered words live on and cannot be forgotten. Have I done my reputation permanent damage? Perhaps. But that is partly because of another mistake that I made yesterday.
Three weeks of constant abuse has left my nerves very frayed. It has also affected my health, since my asthma is triggered by stress: I had to take a few days off work because my breathing was so bad. But the frayed nerves are a much bigger problem. I am over-sensitive and my judgment is impaired. My usual clarity of thought is no longer there. I overreact to things that I should have the sangfroid to let pass. So when a blogger quoted my tweet in a post yesterday, I reacted very badly.
He had used the tweet as an example of temporary "insanity" in a normally rational person caused by a highly emotive event. Had I been thinking straight, I would have seen that this was what he meant. But I'm not thinking straight. I took it as yet another personal attack - an attempt to stir up the whole tweetstorm all over again. I told him to take down the section referring to me or face libel charges.
That was both unfair to him and very foolish. There followed an unpleasant argument on Twitter in which I tried again to explain what the purpose of the original tweet was and he insisted that I did not mean that - all of it watched by a huge crowd who were mostly not on my side. It achieved precisely the opposite of what I wanted: not only did the blogger refuse to amend the piece, the piece ended up being circulated far more widely than it probably would have been, and a new tweetstorm developed, this time expressing outrage at my allegation of libel. I am now receiving personal abuse again, though not on the scale of two weeks ago. I've muted lots of people. But muting doesn't work, really: I still see the comment before I mute. A few hundred nasty tweets and I'm a nervous wreck, whether or not I mute the originators.
My attempt to resolve the situation by leaving a comment on his post and retweeting it myself also appears to have backfired, though it was intended as something of a climbdown. The blogger has now written a very angry post about me. I have to say that although the criticism he levels at me in this post is harsh, it is deserved. I have handled this very badly indeed and am genuinely sorry about the mess I have made. I have left a comment on that post apologising for accusing him of libel.
But until yesterday, I was not guilty of anything more than stupidity. And heaven knows, people make stupid remarks on Twitter ALL the time. I did not deserve weeks of obscene personal abuse and threats, not only on Twitter but also in comments on my own blog, and even by email. Nor did I deserve to have attempts made to destroy my livelihood. And I am damned if I am going to be hounded off Twitter by what is the online equivalent of a lynch mob.
This must stop.
* The term "kebab" is used pejoratively by the American right to mean Middle Eastern Muslims. I have been told that it comes from a music video created by Serb musicians in the Bosnian war. The video was originally entitled "Remove kebab" - an approving reference to the genocide ("ethnic cleansing") of Bosnian Muslims. Hence it is both racist and murderous, not simply anti-Muslim.