Twitter and Policing Social Networks for Abuse

Photo credit: 1000 Words/
Photo credit: 1000 Words/

Twitter has responded to the Caroline Criado-Perez case with a "We hear you" blog posting. "We are not blind to the reality that there will always be people using Twitter in ways that are abusive and may harm others," wrote Del Harvey, the senior director of trust and safety. 

"Three weeks ago," he added, "we rolled out the ability to file reports from an individual Tweet on our iPhone app and the mobile version of our site, and we plan to bring this functionality to Android and desktop web users." 

But is an abuse button enough? What can Twitter and other social networks actually do to prevent abuse? Twitter's apparent preference, to rely on the police to deal with legal issues, is problematic. "Policing cyberspace, a realm that is inherently borderless and void of any governance, is at best going down a very slippery slope," warns Amar Singh, ISACA's UK chair. "Would the police ignore tweets that originated from, say Russia, China or Mongolia even though they fell in the same 'criminal bucket' as tweets from UK or EU locations?" There is certainly not much the UK police could do to apprehend a troll based in Russia.

Singh believes that primary responsibility should lie with the provider and not the police. He thinks little, however, of the use of filters to block abusive comments. "Given that at some point the keyword filter will leak, deliberately or accidentally, online trolls would simply avoid these filtered keywords."

The problem is that social networks are based on the concept of making connections: they are "only interested in allowing people to connect or follow, rather than disconnect or unfollow." An abuse button is a start, but better would be easy batch reporting of abuse, and easy batch "removal/blocking of followers, friends or contacts." Instant report and disconnect is the route for victims of abuse.

Barry Shtelman, senior security strategist at Imperva, takes a similar view. "Today," he says, "Twitter does not allow a user to blacklist a user from tweeting at you or a link source, or even report an abusive tweet. This is a basic step that is required in order to put things in order. If Caroline had the ability to report a 'life threatening abuse' and then block the user, it would be an important first step."

But Shtelman also thinks there is a role for government in this – specifically in life-threatening abuse. "By letting users report such abuse, and by having the platform owner forward such content to a government official, the response time improves to protect the abused individual and also acts as a deterrence mechanism."

The proposed solution, then, is for the social networks to allow easier, faster and bulk abuse reports; for them to allow easier, faster and bulk friend/follower blocking; and for the police to be brought in automatically for the most serious forms of abuse.

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