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Culture

Twitter trolls and payday loans: Stella Creasy, MP

Rachel Salmon
From facing down Twitter trolls to challenging payday loan companies, Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy is fast becoming one of the UK's most recognisable and engaging politicians.

As a former youth worker and social researcher, Stella blends political campaigning with volunteering to engage people and get things done. Before the Twitter abuse incident she was best known for her leading role in the Sharkstoppers campaign, which aims to get the government to cap the interest payday loan companies can charge. The Competition Commission is now investigating the industry.

But Stella has not stopped there. Walthamstow, like the rest of East London, is changing fast. The success of the Olympics is bringing in more wealthy residents, but unemployment is still persistently high. Stella started thinking about the effects of benefit changes, increases in the cost of living and rising rents and house prices would have on her poorer constituents and devised ‘7days4Stow,’ which launched in January 2013.

Over the course of the year, Walthamstow residents were encouraged to contribute 7 days of their time to community projects including a night shelter, community kitchen, food banks and housing campaigns.

‘I’ve always been passionate about involvement and participation. For me it’s not just about voting. I think parties of all colours over the last 50 or 60 years have been struggling not just to recruit people but to turn them into activists. I wrote my entire PhD on it. I’m not a customer complaints desk, I’m not here to get cross on people’s behalf – I want to change the world, so that means I have to get people involved in what I do.’

Taking threats seriously

In 2013, Stella Creasy stepped in on Twitter to defend journalist Caroline Criado-Perez who, after leading a campaign to get Jane Austen on the ten-pound note and writing about it for Libertine, was receiving as many as 50 abusive tweets an hour. Immediately, Stella found herself subjected to similar abuse and equally at a loss as to how to curb internet bullying.

‘You have to remember that all of this is illegal offline. We are not talking about people sending offensive or near the knuckle tweets, we are talking about people receiving direct threats. That is an attack, as far as I am concerned.

‘I’ve asked [the companies] to publish data about the number of complaints they get, as obviously everyone is concerned that suddenly everyone will be flagging everyone’s tweets.’

Since the incident, Twitter has promised to install a report button in each tweet, but Stella thinks they and other social media companies need to install a panic button, where users can raise the alarm about abuse without having to flag every single incident. She also wants companies to look for high volumes of messages with key words and investigate when there is cause for concern.

‘I believe in the wisdom of the crowd. I genuinely think the public on the whole are decent people who want their online spaces to be fun and interesting and lively. But if people do commit illegal acts like threatening people with rape and death and bomb threats – threats that we have all had now – we need a way where once you have hit the panic button there is an assessment process. That seems to be different than just saying we’ll wait until we get a lot of abuse reports and think about what we do about them.”

An old-fashioned crime

Stella says the police and law enforcement services must be more cyber-aware, but it is the abusers not the technology that need to be curbed.

‘It is a mistake to think that this is about Twitter or about technology. This is a very old-fashioned crime – hatred of women – that just takes a new form as it appears online. If Twitter didn’t exist people would find another outlet for their hatred of women. We have to deal with the different places where this is expressed not just the technology alone.

Some of the best responses to this have been online, whether it’s the Everyday Sexism campaign or using #takebacktwitter and saying ‘actually I don’t want this space to be used in this way’. It’s starting to have an impact because it has stopped – we’ve had a couple of days now without threats.”

Stella has long been known for her enthusiasm for social media; she has over 37,000 Twitter followers, writes a blog and produces a weekly e-newsletter where she shares her views on topical issues, local public service announcements and listings and informs her constituents where she will be in the coming week. But the events of the past few weeks have made her think about how she uses online spaces.

‘I’m a politician – I get abuse all the time. It’s not particularly nice and I wouldn’t say it is ever acceptable, but I deal with it in different ways. Sometimes I send people kittens to calm them down. Sometimes I call their behaviour and say, ‘why would you speak to me like that?’ Sometimes you’ll see me saying ‘I’m not going to talk to you anymore’. That is very different from someone sending you threats saying “I’m going to be at your house, I’m going to rape you, I’m going to bomb you, you can’t leave, I know where you live”.

Standing up for change

Stella was elected MP for Walthamstow in East London in 2010, and she became Shadow Home Office Minister for Crime Prevention in 2011. Ironically, violence against women and online crime were already part of her brief as part of the One Billion Rising campaign.

‘I’ve had debates where male MPs have been incredibly dismissive and patronising to me as the only woman speaking in the room. When you are having a debate on cyber crime which is not a [gender-related] issue and you have somebody opposite you calling you passionate or emotional or hysterical then you want to say, “no, sorry”.

‘There are very real concerns about cuts to services and the way they will disproportionately impact on women, but some of it is about changing cultures. How can we get people making [violence against women] a priority and talking about it? We can all stand up and say an environment where 51 per cent of the population is being routinely denigrated is not one where we can all flourish.’

Rachel Salmon is a freelance journalist and policy specialist. Follow Stella on Twitter @stellacreasyworkingforwalthamstow.org.uk

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