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The Twitter Debate: What Can Be Done To Deal With Abuse?

John Waghorn

by John Waghorn on 10th February 2014

bigstock-Blue-Keyboard-Twitter-Bird-Key-47966159With Facebook turning ten years old this month and Twitter just two years behind, social media has grown exponentially since its inception.

Like anything of this nature that creates an impact on such a vast scale, there will always be user issues to deal with. The current issue in question is one that’s gained further widespread media attention over the last month – abuse, and more specifically abuse on the social channel Twitter.

With celebrities closing their accounts, or indeed even responding to messages from trolls, this level of abuse has raised questions as to whether the social platform needs to be regulated and governed in some way.

Let’s take a closer look at the scale of abuse on Twitter and some of the potential outcomes in more detail.

Twitter’s Rise and Famous Cases

According to Twitter, as of February last year there were 200 million active users worldwide on the social platform, creating over 400 million Tweets each and every day.

This figure is substantial and so it’s not surprising that issues have been caused in the first place. To put it into perspective, we’ve created a landscape that encompasses more active users than the population of Russia.

Individual members from a community this size will all have different agendas and it’s impossible to get everyone to think the same way. However, there will be a general consensus.

From this huge figure stems a proportion of people who are determined to troll others in an attempt to gain a reaction from their victims.

In the news of late, celebrities have been used as a dominant example to showcase the level of threats, torment and abuse that they are receiving via Twitter.

Recent examples include Tom Daley and the reaction he received when he revealed he was in a relationship with a man, as well as ex-footballer Stan Collymore and the murder threats and racial hatred that he has been Tweeted.

Other examples include TV presenter Lizzie Cundy, former British gymnast Beth Tweedle, feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, whose abusers were jailed in January, Manchester City defender Micah Richards, and English boxer Curtis Woodhouse, who went to extreme lengths to locate his abuser.

In these examples, racist, sexist, homophobic, murder and rape threats, as well as abusive language was sent to Twitter users from either personal or anonymous accounts.

Whilst banter is regarded as one thing, threats to kill or murder, as well as language that incites racial hatred and the above is a step too far and definitely crosses the line.

But what are the solutions to this evolving and escalating problem online?

Governing Twitter

bigstock-Judge-s-hold-hammer-on-wooden--46275952In an interview with the BBC, Stan Collymore stated the following:

“Can Twitter in the UK live within the laws of the United Kingdom like we would have to do as broadcasters?”

A fair point made. If Collymore said something over the radio which was equivalent to some of the Tweets he has received, the issue would be dealt with swiftly. This has happened before, a few years ago when commentator Ron Atkinson was sacked by ITV for racist remarks he made live on air.

True to say, Ron Atkinson wasn’t arrested, however he was sacked as the issue was dealt with at the earliest stage possible. You can’t get away with this type of behaviour in other walks of life, so surely people who are inciting hated on the same scale via Twitter to other users also need to be dealt with.

Monitoring and Blocking Accounts

Twitter can potentially block user accounts, however there is nothing to stop trolls moving from one account to another, or indeed setting up fake accounts and using their personal profile for other means.

One of the main issues for the social channel relates to the difficulty they have in monitoring all cases across the spectrum. Furthermore, all Tweets deemed as “abusive” have varying degrees of impact or damage, which can be hard to measure and determine. Some would argue that the level of severity could potentially be determined by the user if they felt threatened or vulnerable, but even still it’s hard to measure.

Alternatively, one option could be for a body to monitor and regulate messages online and crack down on any behaviour that is deemed inappropriate. This idea has already been mentioned by celebrities and existing users alike.

Monitoring messages is certainly feasible if the right body was to be set up and put in place to do the job. In order for change, the first steps need to be made.

A few years ago it was revealed that the FBI was looking to monitor public information posted on social networks via an app to protect civilians against current and emerging security threats.

In my own opinion I believe that if it’s possible to monitor social channels on this scale, even though this is for the wider protection of society, then it’s possible to monitor/filter Tweets at an individual level, despite the backlash this would cause.

How Twitter would do this exactly is up for debate. Suggestions in the public eye have included keyword monitoring and filtering, the ability to make it easier to report abuse, age verification, and blocking tools.

Policing Madness

bigstock-Computer-keyboard-secured-wit-13478072If the social channels ever made it to the above stage, then it would be difficult to determine the intent of some cases.

Until rules are put in place there is bound to be a certain degree of policing madness and examples that would be viewed as less abusive than others. However, it’s about finding a solution initially and working from there to refine it.

The very fact that the abusers of feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez were put in prison indicates that this is an escalating problem that needs to be resolved. Abuse and threats on this level should not be tolerated.

Twitter needs to develop as a network so that cases of this kind are easier to spot and deal with before they get out of hand. In the same breath, we as users need to learn how to use the platform in a more responsible way, or alternatively face the risk of punishment.

Freedom of Speech and Open Communication

bigstock-A-group-of-diverse-people-talk-16774244Campaigners on the other side of the argument have stated that monitoring social media on such a close scale goes against freedom of speech.

The Internet is a vast space where users (within reason) are entitled to speak their thoughts, and social platforms are the dominant example for this in the modern world.

Personally I don’t have a problem with the potential to monitor Tweets as the information we share is already in the public domain. In other words, if you know that what you are sharing is likely to be viewed as abusive, then you shouldn’t share it in the first place.

Monitoring and regulating Twitter could be one way to solve the problem, although the only danger is we don’t know how extreme proposals like this could become. Once one freedom is taken away, will the rules become even more stringent and impact other freedoms?

Twitter’s stance on the whole affair is as follows:

In a statement on the BBC, the social network said: “Twitter is an open communications platform. Our priority is that users are able to express themselves, within acceptable limits and, of course, within the law.”

“We cannot stop people from saying offensive, hurtful things on the Internet or on Twitter. But we take action when content is reported to us that breaks our rules or is illegal.”

Twitter has also stated that it hopes to introduce a report abuse button on all of its platforms, including desktops.

The Influence of Celebrity

Whilst individuals have a choice as to whether they harass other members of a community, how much of an influence do celebrities hold?

Some may argue that the influence of celebrities has the ability to encourage other followers to carry out similar actions.

One recent celebrity example involved singer Lily Allen who Tweeted messages to TV personality Katie Hopkins after she made jibes relating to Lily’s weight during her pregnancy.

Lily Allen Tweets

Although the Tweets aren’t the most scathing we’ve seen (and Lily is within her rights to defend herself), behaviour of this nature (given their celebrity status) is bound to have an effect on other users, both young and old. Once again, regulating everything may be difficult, but a line has to be drawn. Where that “line” is will no doubt be debated for a long time to come.

Social Manners

Ultimately, it’s extremely difficult to please everyone, but when abuse occurs via Twitter that is illegal, the issue needs to be resolved at the earliest stage possible. All other behaviour that involves abuse of varying degrees should be easier to report to Twitter and indeed other social channels too, before action is taken.

One thing that is difficult to change is people’s personality via the screen. However, we all need to learn how to use social media when engaging with others in a way that’s respectful to other members of the same community. A degree of responsibility definitely comes down to the individual user.

Only time will tell how we progress with this current and ongoing issue and what the ramifications will be if action is taken to regulate the social channels.

Let us know your thoughts by leaving your comments in the section below.

Image Credits

Twitter thumbnail image from Bigstock
Judge’s hammer image from Bigstock
Keyboard and lock image from Bigstock
Open communication image from Bigstock

John Waghorn

John Waghorn

John works as a Content Marketing Executive at Koozai. With previous experience in PR, he helps the team by writing a range of client content including press releases, guest blog posts and website copy. He is also a regular contributor to the Koozai blog.

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1 Comment

  • Scott Bradshaw 11th February 2014

    A tough issue, but an important one. I’m not sure how to monitor / manage it, and I am generally against any kind of regulation or limits to personal freedoms. But, on the other hand, there should be a certain amount of respect offered here on the internet. Lively debate, sure. Healthy argument, sure. But hatred and prejudice – not ever. I think most of us understand that, and we walk that line, but how do we get all of us to obey, well, what other way to put it… the Golden Rule.

    Reply to this comment

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