Social Media and Abuse

This weekend was a lot of furore over the online abuse received by women who dare to raise their head and pronounce a political opinion. Caroline Criado-Perez (), who had spearheaded the campaign to have a woman on the British £10 note, received rape threats and abuse because of this campaign. Conversation turned to how to deal with it, and a Report Abuse button quickly became the idea that people rallied behind... Or didn't.

A Report Abuse button campaign, , is the epitome of the Clicktivism Culture. A plan so superficial and ill-thought through that it can only come from a population completely dis-empowered by a one-click-and-it's-done style of campaigning. And that shallowness has been embraced, .

A Report Abuse button can only be the user interface to a process which needs much more careful thought, and those advocating such a button are entirely happy to leave that thought to other people. And that is one of the scariest things I can imagine. It's asking someone else to define abuse. It's asking someone else to assess abuse. It's asking someone else to police abuse. And the only way Twitter could afford to do such a thing would be to automate it. And that leads to new Clicktivism campaigns with the power to silence "abusive" voices.

"Abusive" voices like those of people of colour, queer people, Trans* people.

This is not the realm of paranoia by the way. Look at the religious right who, when called out on their bigotry over same-sex marriage, cried about our bullying of them. Look at some feminist campaigners who, when called on transphobic bigotry, go off in a huff and accuse those calling them of abuse.

(If this argument sounds familiar by the way, it's because it also applies to Cameron's Great Porn Firewall of Britain. In asking someone else to define "porn" (or "adult content"), to assess it, to police it, it will end up silencing those very same voices.)

But, what can be done to stop online abuse? I don't know. I also don't know that asking about stopping online abuse is an appropriate question - we need to be asking how do we stop abuse.

But, let's look at some options anyway.

Just ignore it, they'll get bored (a.k.a. Don't feed the trolls) - Hmmmm.... well, even if this argument wasn't bollocks in the first place, this is not a restricted population where "the" bully exists and where this attitude at least makes sense. The type of abuse being talked about is multiple people in one-off drive-by attacks. It also implies the idea of the abuse being harmless - it isn't, it really isn't.

Threaten to tell their mummy - , however, the practicalities are entirely obvious.

Report it to the police - Where there is a direct, credible threat, getting the police involved is absolutely correct - in fact, if you have received a direct credible threat, you should get on the phone to the police BEFORE you hit the Report Abuse button (hitting Print Screen is probably also higher on the list than hitting Report Abuse). However, like Twitter don't have the man power to assess and police every abuse threat, nor do the police. There have also been a lot of cases where the police have been involved and have attempted to push our laws to include criminalise obvious jokes ( anyone?) and genuine, if poorly expressed, political opinion (). Asking the police to police our speech is dangerous.

Block them - Similar to the "do not feed the trolls" argument above, this only works in limited circumstances - in particular where the abuse and harassment is from an individual waging a concerted campaign against you personally. With mass abuse, this is just impractical.

Lock your account - No. Just no. This may be a practical solution in the short term, but this is absolutely the wrong thing to do. This is the equivalent of saying "don't wear short skirts". This is silencing the voice and letting the abusers win.

Publicise and ridicule them - just isn't going to work in the vast majority of cases. Most people don't have a huge follower base to let it go viral enough and therefore it becomes the purview of a few high profile gatekeepers. This also has problems with triggering those who have been victims of the threats or abuse being publicised.

Charge for accounts - if it costs to create or maintain an account it has much more value and is more obviously tied to you (by credit/debit card or PayPal). However, this silences some of the most important voices I would want to follow on twitter - those who are already marginalised. They can't afford it. They can't risk their pseudonymity. They can't use Twitter.

A (or Safe Mode) - Under this, only mentions from Followers/Following get through to the Mentions list that the user sees - mentions from other people get logged in a potential abuse bin for investigation. This has the same fundamental problem as locking the account - it places restrictions on the victim's ability to use Twitter - but it is better as the potentially abusive tweets are assigned against the case and can be assessed as such. I think it needs some thought - any account in such a panic mode is likely to also get supportive messages from unknown people, or even mentions which are raising awareness of their campaign/status - under the proposals there, supporters would be placed in the same hole as the abusers... is that a price the abused are willing to pay? And again we are left with the question of what is done with those tweets? Are they all forgotten? Investigated? Against what criteria? With what outcomes? By whom?

None of the "solutions" actually work because none of them answer the serious questions about how to deal with the abusers. We have to look out to wider society and ask how can we use Social Media to enact the change we want. How do we empower every one to feel able to identify and call out inappropriate behaviour, not just on Twitter and Facebook, but also in the wider world: the banter in pubs, the wolf whistles on the street and the other abuse women, people of colour, disabled people, queers, trans* folk and anyone can face.

And that's a question that's been asked for years.

Edit to add my angry morning further thoughts: So, when people say "with all those great minds at Twitter surely they can fix this" they are actually asking Twitter to fix not just Twitter, not just our society, but EVERY SOCIETY IN THE WORLD - this is the global nature of the internet. And there are societies where Female Genital Mutilation is the norm. There are societies where . There are societies where women are not allowed out in public without a male family member accompanying them. There are societies where openly leching at women is the norm... where groping women is common-place. There are places where . There are societies where "gay propaganda" is banned and is seen, by some, as appropriate. Where .

And that's all before we get to questions about colonialism...

I don't envy Twitter the Herculean task of fixing the problem.

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