The increased publicity on twitter abuse has thrust the issue well and truly into the public domain and action needs to be taken.
Of course this is not a new phenomenon, feminist and journalist Laurie Penny has been delivering lectures on internet abuse against women for quite some time; focusing on rape threats. Personally I would disagree with anyone who believes that there is one solution to this issue. We need cooperation across the board to make sure that women can have their voices heard on the internet without having to suffering this horrendous treatment.
This will of course need to involve social media sites like Twitter and Facebook – both of which have never made a satisfactory response to these issues in the past. Having said this, I still strongly stand by the criminal justice system in these cases; when threats of rape have been made, these people have broken the law and must be punished. Of course Twitter can do more, and the introduction of a report button quite frankly is well overdue; but a rape threat is a rape threat whether it has been issued in person, over the phone, via email or on Twitter. Therefore these people need to be prosecuted for their actions. What kind of message are we sending out to women if we are letting numerous people get away with these abusive comments?
I personally do believe that if a few people were made an example of that would send a message. There needs to be a attitude change on the internet; a woman feels just as hurt however she receives a threat – so it needs to be shown that the consequences are equivalent however the threat is given. The point has been raised about police resources; I expect that there are plenty of people who probably want to shrug this off and believe that police time can be spent in a more productive way.
And of course I wish that the police were properly funded to deal with these issues. But it seems to me that self-policing on the internet has been shown to fundamentally not work, the pack mentally is too strong. When a pack forms on a social media site things will get ugly – we have seen how groups of people on twitter work. If twitter blocked one of these people what is that going to do? They will just make a new account. We definitely need to reach a new understanding of policing on the internet. A threat of rape can never be taken lightly. I truly believe that if trolls thought that there was a real chance that their actions would lead to consequences they would think again – that is the way the law works. We do not commit crimes every day because we know we will definitely be caught but we know there is a real chance we may be caught. For these internet trolls the risk is so small it might as well not be there. If it were they may think differently about there actions.
It goes without saying that making rape threats against women is disgusting, wrong and against the law and in many cases police intervention is warranted. However we must be careful how we proceed, the criminalisation of twitter would add a huge workload onto an already stretched police force, opens a whole can of worms in terms of intent and may lead to the wrong people being targeted.
The staggering level of data being processed by Twitter, up to 2 billion tweets a week, means that it can’t be policed by humans alone, there’s simply too much material. Rule breaking can be flagged up to Twitter by users or complex algorithms designed to root out such behaviour by looking out for key words. Neither approach is perfect, but it’s infinitely more realistic than asking our overstretched police force in a time of austerity, trying to police an exponentially expanding social network based in a different jurisdiction, with users from a multitude of different countries constantly coming into contact with each other. These are not the elite cyber-crime officers who get often tasked with finding these people but front line police officers of whom not enough are on the street as it is. The sheer scale of this problem is massive and is quite frankly too big an issue for the police and court system to deal with alone. It’s like trying to demolish a skyscraper with a spade, we can take a chunk out here or there, make a few prosecutions, but ultimately it’s a futile effort that doesn’t even begin to tackle the problem.
Moreover once the police become involved the potential problems rise. What counts as illegal? In some cases its simple but in others it isn’t. You may think making a bomb threat is a open and shut case, but as the case of Paul Chambers shows, who was convicted and later cleared of making a menacing tweet threatening to blow up Robin Hood airport (as a joke) shows, this isn’t always the case, especially as the majority of trolls claim to just be doing it for a bit of a laugh, it opens a huge can of worms one that costs the state a huge amount of money.
Moreover once you start going down the road of criminalisation, there’s only one destination and that’s a wider and more all encompassing interpretation of the law. More and more people will find themselves in trouble for tweets that were once considered fine. The police have been criticised as being heavy handed in the past for arresting twitter trolls under the guise of malicious communications and harassment, expect this to happen much more in the future if we see more police intervention on twitter.
The most important issue here is quite simply getting effective infrastructure for dealing with malevolent users. Firstly it seems obvious that the system of reporting offensive material is unfit for purpose, unable to cope with the industrial scale some trolls operate on. Many trolls have many accounts, sometimes with the ability to recreate their accounts. Even Twitters Head of ‘Trust and Safety’ Del Harvey admitted on Newsnight that the company had grown so quickly and unexpectedly that they have sometimes been struggling to keep up. Without effective infrastructure we can’t hope to even understand the scale of the problem, let alone keep up with it.
Also, don’t underestimate self censorship. On Monday we saw its effectiveness, a troll, in fact a former public schoolboy called Oliver Rawlings insulted historian Mary Beard who was being interviewed on Radio 2 about the subject at the same time. Another knew Rawlings mother and offered to send the offending tweets to her. Immediately Rawlings issued a grovelling apology showing not only his pathetic nature, but also the potential usefulness of user censorship in certain circumstances, when dealing with a troll the answer is simple, don’t call the police, call their mothers!