The online avengers: When "anti-bullies" turn into bullies

When I asked Ash how he squared his ongoing affection for the creepiness of 4Chan with his work for OpAntiBully, he said it was all about intent. “I’m fine with taking it quite close to the bone. But never with malice. That’s the difference.” Plus, he said, “adults can sort things out for themselves. We’re here for the well-being of kids.” He described how he was pushed around as a young boy and decided, when he started secondary school, that he’d had enough. “I didn’t want to be in that victim role anymore.” He also told me about becoming close to a girl, when he was in his teens and 20s, who was being sexually abused. The relationship led him to read books about rape and sexual coercion, and he came to the understanding that “it’s about dominating girls. It’s less about the sex and more about control.”

Ash seemed reasonable and sensitive, and yet it was hard to reconcile that young man with the one whose merciless anger I sometimes saw flare online. Soon after my trip to London, Ash got into a fight on Twitter with a 29-year-old British feminist, Caroline Criado-Perez, who had started a campaign that helped persuade the Bank of England to put Jane Austen on the £10 note. After she became the target of a stream of online threats, Criado-Perez went to the police, who arrested and charged two people. At one point, she threatened to report a friend of Ash’s who tweeted that she “could do with getting layed.” In response, Ash joined the Twitter attack on her and used a harsh misogynist epithet. To Ash, Criado-Perez wasn’t a woman who was being bullied for her views; she was a publicity hound baiting men to go after her and who “enjoyed being in the role of victim.” He refused to give her credit for trying to control her own narrative, and he didn’t see how berating her might be at odds with his stated desire to help victimized girls. “I don’t care about her feelings,” he said. “It doesn’t reflect my morals regarding what I do with children.” In the river of victimhood on Ash’s Twitter feed, a few stories moved him to ride to the rescue, but others earned only his scorn.