August 19, 2013

Twitter Trolls Face Crackdown

By: Emma Elliott Freire

Jane Austen is about to change the way you tweet. In recent weeks, Twitter has become engulfed in a controversy over threats sent to British women who campaigned to make Jane Austen the new face of the United Kingdom’s 10 pound bill. In response, Twitter will add a ‘report abuse’ button to each individual Tweet. Will this help? Adam Thierer, senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason, believes there are no easy answers.

Caroline Criado-Perez, a journalist and women’s rights activist, recently spoke out about threats anonymously Tweeted at her. Earlier this year, she launched the successful campaign to have Jane Austen’s portrait printed on the 10 pound bill. She argued that it was sexist for Queen Elizabeth II to be the only woman to appear on the UK’s currency. Thus, she launched an online petition that garnered 35,000 signatures. She also threatened to sue the Bank of England for breaking gender equality laws.

On July 24, the Bank announced that Criado-Perez’s campaign had been successful. Within minutes of the announcement, Twitter users began Tweeting threats at her. For the next 2 days, she received about 50 abusive Tweets per hour. She was threatened with everything from assault to rape to bombings to murder. Several other female journalists and politicians who had supported the Jane Austen campaign received similar threats.

This is perhaps less surprising on Twitter than some other platforms. “Twitter has been fairly tolerant of hate speech. Some sites crack down on this more,” Thierer told Doublethink.

Criado-Perez reported the threats to police and spoke to the media. As a result, over 130,000 people signed an online petition to ask Twitter to add a “report abuse” button to individual Tweets. Up to now, Twitter has addressed this problem by allowing its users to report abusive or threatening messages via its Help Center section. Also, Twitter’s iPhone app already features a “report abuse” button. On August 3, Twitter announced on its UK blog that the button will soon also be available for its Android app and on

Thierer agrees this is a good idea, but he says it must be handled carefully. “An abuse button can be abused,” he said. “A lot of people who report abuse are reporting things that offend their taste. They report Justin Bieber music on YouTube. So you have to educate your community. When someone hits the report abuse button, there should be a pop-up asking why this is offensive.”

After Criado-Perez reported the threats to UK police, several Twitter users—all men in their 20s and 30s—were arrested. Andy Trotter, who works on social media for the United Kingdom’s police forces, told the UK’s Guardian newspaper that sites themselves should take the lead in dealing with threats.

“We want social media companies to take steps to stop this happening. It’s on their platforms this is occurring. They must accept responsibility for what’s happening on their platforms,” he said. “They can’t just set it up and walk away. We don’t want to be in this arena. They are ingenious people, it can’t be beyond their wit to stop these crimes.”

Thierer believes the response to online threats should be flexible and multi-faceted. He points to Robert Nozick’s concept of a ‘utopia of utopias.’ “We shouldn’t be aiming for one comprehensive solution. I’d like to think that on the internet there can be sites where people are accountable for what they say and some places where you’re anonymous,” Thierer says.

Anonymity entails both problems as well as important benefits. “There’s no doubt that anonymity will encourage some knuckleheads to say abusive things,” Thierer argues. “But it also lets some people say things they wouldn’t otherwise, for instance dissenters or people who want to expose things in their homes or workplaces. Anonymity is a powerful force for good. “

Thierer sees the ‘report abuse’ button as one good option for dealing with the “knuckleheads.” But individuals should also be proactive about calling out the threats they receive. “The best thing users can do is to bring the abuse to the attention of their friends and other members of their community,” he says. “It’s not perfect, but the best thing you can do is shine the light on this and drown it out, so perhaps the person goes away. Though, often that won’t happen.”

In some instances, a person should definitely go to the police, particularly if there’s a history of contact and the threats seem like they might escalate into real-world contact.

Thierer also points out that some sites have successfully collaborated with third-party experts to help them handle hateful content. That approach might be helpful in dealing with the types of threats Criado-Perez received.

“There are many groups that work with abused women. They have a good deal of experience dealing with this sort of situation. Google and Facebook have already worked with them on these issues,” he said. “Twitter will probably have to do the same thing. “

Emma Elliot Freire is an American writer living in England. Twitter image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.