Twitter bomb threats: Online and offline, female journalists face abuse “all the time”

Friday, 9 August 2013 12:46 GMT

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Women journalists don’t need to be on the frontlines to experience threats – they can be sitting at their desk in London, hidden behind their computer screens. Sadly, sexist comments and cyber-bullying are seen by many as part of the job.

When Catherine Mayer, TIME’s Europe Editor, was sent a tweet by an anonymous user threatening to blow up her home at 10:47 on a Wednesday evening earlier this month, she was incredulous.

Although she had never been sent a direct threat like this before, being a high profile newswoman means she had become used to varying degrees of online abuse and was prepared to brush it off. She had experienced the odd “over-friendly” comment, but usually, it would boil down to remarks about her appearance.

The cartoonish capital letters and hyperbole led her to immediately dismiss this instance as a “not very credible-sounding bomb threat” on the social networking site.

It was when she found out that two other British female journalists, the Guardian’s Hadley Freeman and the Independent’s Grace Dent, had the same threat sent to their Twitter accounts, that she reluctantly called the police. Freeman had contacted her, saying she had already notified Scotland Yard of the incident and advised her it should be reported as it was “an arrestable offence”.

It later emerged that the Daily Telegraph’s Emma Barnett had received the very same tweet.

“That crystalized for me something I had already suspected, which was that the reason I had received the bomb threat was because I was female. In a way, that made sense of a nonsensical situation,” Mayer told INSI.

“I think the only provocative thing I did was to be female and to be on Twitter, and to have some modicum of a public profile, and have opinions.”

Women journalists don’t need to be on the frontlines to experience threats – they can be sitting at their desk in London, hidden behind their computer screens. Sadly, sexist comments and cyber-bullying are seen by many as part of the job.

Although Mayer cannot say for certain why she was targeted, it is widely believed that the tweet was related to the recent campaign of violent threats made against other high profile British women, including freelance journalist Caroline Criado-Perez and Labour MP Stella Creasy who successfully lobbied for British novelist Jane Austen to be pictured on UK bank notes.

When Freeman received the ‘bomb tweet’ the day after she wrote a column titled “How to use the internet without being a total loser,” which touched upon online misogyny and abuse, she took to the social networking site and wrote:

“We’ve gone from rape threats to bomb threats, I see.”

Dent added, “Well, this is a new low.”

Barnett took longer to comment, because she chose to ignore the threat completely and head to the pub instead. In an article she wrote the following day, she said her reaction was partly due to having had “years of abuse on Twitter and in the comment box beneath my Telegraph articles,” and partly because she did not believe the police could do anything about the situation.

Building up a picture

The incidents from the past weeks have prompted calls for action to prevent abuse against women on social media. Three arrests have been made in connection with the Metropolitan Police’s investigation into Criado-Perez and Creasy’s cases, and Twitter said that it will be rolling out its “in-tweet” report button, where users can report abuse on the social networking site, across all platforms from next month.

But the abuse is not stopping: earlier this week, TV classicist Mary Beard and journalists Laurie Penny and India Knight were sent similar threats.

All three informed the police.

Although Mayer was reluctant to contact the police, she says it is important to “build up a picture” of the constant low-level abuse that is affecting female journalists every day.

“I think this is something that is never properly taken into account. People always say of individual incidents, ‘that’s not very serious is it? Don’t let it bother you.’

“But it’s the accretion of all of these incidents of low level abuse that matter, and that’s very true of female journalists. Both in the virtual world, and the real world, we encounter throughout our working lives low level abuse and low level harassment all the time.”


This month, the International News Safety Institute will launch a global survey into violence against women journalists. Created in conjunction with the International Women’s Media Foundation, it will look at the worldwide situation of women journalists and the nature of dangers they face in relation to their work, from physical threats to cyber-bulling.

INSI invites all women working in the news media to participate.

Based on the findings of the report, INSI will work with other experts in the field and offer a series of recommendations aimed at increasing the safety of women journalists.

More information will be available shortly at