Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Can Twitter be blamed for bad behaviour?

The case of the abusive tweets sent to campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez have once again highlighted the difficult issues that surround user generated content.
Ms Criado-Perez’s situation clearly demonstrates the potential for social networks to be used a vehicle for harassment. After being involved in the successful call for a woman to be featured on a forthcoming banknote, she received a torrent of abusive messages including threats of rape.
When Ms Criado-Perez reported the matter to Twitter the response was not what she expected – she was told to report the matter to the police who have now arrested a 21 year old man on suspicion of harassment offences.
Twitter now faces a welter of criticism about its reaction to the situation and its policy about reporting abuse. It’s now reported to be planning to introduce a “report abuse” button similar to those seen on many news sites or forums.
At the end of 2012, the then Director of Public Prosecutions, responding to prison sentences being handed out to twitter users gave guidance that prosecutions would only be sought where material published was grossly offensive or criminal. In Ms Criado-Perez’s case the inclusion of threats clearly pushed this over the line.
However, like the argument around the blocking of pornography by ISPs, the ability to report abuse on social networking sites would require the companies to become an arbiter of a complex and finely shaded law and take on the cost of providing the huge resource to monitor the flow of content.
The problem, however, is not completely new. Threatening phone calls and text messages have been creating misery for users for many years. Networks always advise reporting the case to the police and their ability to support the abused customer is limited (changing phone number for example). Companies like twitter could be forgiven perhaps for wondering why they are required to go further than long established mobile and telecoms operators.
The treatment of people who express strong views in public is cause for concern and this seems to be a particular issue when the views expressed are those of a woman, but there is a risk of confusing the issue of this abuse and the medium it is carried by.
As the medium of much modern discourse, it’s right to expect social networks to work closely with law enforcement when abuse takes place. This means that records must be kept to enable investigations, but this is quite different from a further growth of privatised censorship.
Just as with the debate around other forms of abuse, the answer here is to attack the problem at its’ root – in this case the irrational reaction of people toward women who express strong opinions in public – rather than trying to sweep the problem under the carpet by moderating a messaging system carrying over 33,000 messages per second.

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