Chickens, eggs, Twitter and report abuse buttons

In the last 24 hours, over 40,000 people have signed an e-petition calling on Twitter to install a “report abuse button.” This was started after journalist Caroline Crialdo-Perez suffered numerous tweeted threats of rape and sexual assault in the wake of her successful campaign to have Jane Austen put on a bank note. Shewrote for the Independent about her experience both of the abuse and the support she’d received in return. Ishould warn you that if you click on the link you will see some examples of the tweets she was sent:

These are all tweets from men. Men who don’t like women speaking up. Men who don’t like women appearing in public.

I was told by numerous people just to ignore them. After all, we don’t feed the trolls, do we? But we had just taken on the Bank of England and won. I wasn’t going to be silenced by these men. I wasn’t going to give them what they wanted. So I started shouting back. And as I did, amid the tidal wave of abuse, a small stream – which gradually turned into a river, and then a flood of supportive tweets – started to appear.

Twitter’s response? Virtually nothing. When she did find someone to complain to, he locked down his account. Their attitude is perplexing. I wonder if any of you will remember the day the lovely Andrew Reeves was suspended from Twitter in December 2010. All he’d done was send a few people, who had already re-tweeted him, a link to his blog post about a gaffe made on ITV. They act in those trivial circumstances and not when women are being threatened with rape and their address is being put up for public display? It’s all very reminiscent of the #FBRape campaign, ironically a campaign on Twitter to get Facebook to stop displaying misogynistic images of violence against women. The double irony is that Facebook for a long time would allow these violent images, but if you put up a photo of a breastfeeding baby, your account could be shut down.

I would be very surprised if any of our readers thought it was ok to send women abusive messages threatening rape and violence. If by chance you do, then please go and take a running jump. The question is what should we do about it? Should Twitter have a Report Abuse button?

Jennie Rigg says that a report button is not the solution for two reasons. Firstly,  trolls would abuse them to silence the  women who reported them and, anyway, we need to deal with the underlying misogyny:

The problem with the suggested solution is that, like Cameron’s porn block, it’s not a solution but a sweeping under the carpet. Reporting an abuse to twitter, even if it worked as the people suggesting it hope it might, will not change the mind of the misogynist, nor show him the error of his ways. It merely pushes the problem out of sight, off twitter. It won’t stop the misogynist finding other outlets for his poison – email, say, or letters.

My co-editor Stephen Tall sees the problem but doesn’t see how it could be solved:

Times journalist Caitlin Moran suggested that all non trolls take the day off from Twitter next Sunday in a #trolliday. Stephen cites the Telegraph’s Mic Wright who rejected this idea:

The August 4 boycott won’t be shouting back, it’ll be shutting up. Twitter must improve its current policy and put smarter algorithms in place, but is it really up to a small coterie of newspaper columnists to decide who’s nice and who’s not?

He’s right. I’m certainly not going anywhere. Hand the space to the abuser? Not likely.

Where I differ from Jennie is that I do think that some action needs to be taken against, certainly, the people who actually threaten violence and rape. It won’t stop the misogyny, but the thought of a criminal record might make the abusive tweeter think.

In the 1970s, it was still acceptable to drink and drive. Nobody wore seatbelts. Look at the shift there has been in the intervening decades. A mixture of real effort to explain why the change was needed and legislation succeeded. Misogyny didn’t end in 1976 when the Sex Discrimination Act became law, but we’re mighty glad we have it and subsequent measures to ensure the rights of women, disabled people, LGBT people. Their lives would be much poorer without the legal protection. Jennie says we have to make this behaviour socially unacceptable. We need to work at how we do that, and soon. We can’t just wait for the culture to change itself before making a stand, though. It’s all a bit chicken and egg.

In this case, I don’t know whether a report abuse button is the best response, but it’s a start. Sure, some people will abuse it, but that’s not a reason for inaction. And it’s an aspirin, not radical, curative surgery. We can’t allow women, or any other group of people, to fear participation in debate though. I don’t think we need any more legislation. We surely already have sufficient to deal with threats of violence.   We all need to draw attention to it when it happens, not suffer in silence like the oppressed have done since the dawn of time and then develop a mix of persuasive education, argument and consequences for abusers. Can you suggest any other ingredients a Trollbuster recipe  should have?



* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Andrew Suffield 28th Jul '13 - 8:50pm

    I am a software engineer and I’ve spent a fair bit of time looking at problems like these from the perspective of the company hosting the service. A “report abuse” button is a finger-pointing exercise – and not in the way you think. It’s not about saying “that is a bad person”, it’s about saying “the company hosting this service is responsible for this problem so I don’t have to do anything about it, and by clicking on this button I have fully discharged my responsibilities to society”. That is unhealthy.

    There’s two ways these things can work. They can be automated – a sufficient number of people poking at the button will automatically disable an account. These are always, without exception, easily abusable and are abused. They make problems like this worse, not better. This particular scenario would not have occurred because people wouldn’t have felt a need to hurl abuse at Caroline Crialdo-Perez – they would simply have had her account disabled.

    They can also just be a manual system that piles up data for the hosting company to look at and make a judgement. But stop and think about that for a second – that’s asking Twitter, Inc. to become the legislator and judge of what is and is not acceptable speech. Why does anybody want us to go there? If we’re going to do anything about this, why on earth would we ask a private company to set up its own private courts, rather than just using our own laws and courts which have a lot more practice and a far stronger base of experience in dealing with complex issues of speech crimes?

    We already have laws against this stuff. They’re flawed in many ways, and I’ve certainly been campaigning for their reform, but in this particular case they’re not only viable – they have already worked:

    Let’s just make them work better.

  • Nonconformistradical 28th Jul '13 - 9:59pm

    “We already have laws against this stuff. They’re flawed in many ways, and I’ve certainly been campaigning for their reform, but in this particular case they’re not only viable – they have already worked:

    I’d rather reserve judgement to await the outcome of charges – if any. All that has happened so far is that an arrest has been made.

  • I don’t think we’re differing all that much tbh Caron. It’s just that I think the something that needs to be done is in the hands of all of us, not just twitter. The message needs to be sent that this sort of crap is not acceptable and has real world consequences. Every one of us need to speak up every time we come across this sort of behaviour so the idiots who do it so taking uncomfortable silence as acceptance

  • But why does this happen on Twitter (mainly) – but on other internet forums. It’s not like it would be acceptable to say in any other environment.

  • Zoe O'connell 28th Jul '13 - 11:29pm

    I too think the “report abuse” button will cause more problems than it’s worth.

    It seems like a good idea if you suddenly start getting abuse to be able to click one button, but if you’re routinely suffering sustained abuse from a determined group it rapidly backfires: Abusers create multiple accounts to evade blocks and will get lots of other people to report your account/actions as abusive. Without extensive resources, it’s also not possible for an organisation like Twitter to be able to delve into the context surrounding various exchanges and hear both sides of the story and this will likely lead to bad decisions blocking the wrong people.

    I am strongly opposed to this and hope Twitter do not implement it. It is an example of politics at it’s worst, a knee-jerk reaction to events against a high profile and relatively privileged individual, ignoring the needs and views of those who experience the most abuse and need the most protection.

    Twitter’s original advice to Caroline was entirely correct – call the police. A single high-profile prosecution will do far more good than a report abuse button.

  • Hywel: it happens on every other medium I’m aware of, both online and off. It’s just that twitter is the one news media like to talk about at the moment.

  • Andy Boddington 29th Jul '13 - 8:34am

    The abuse Caroline Criado-Perez has suffered is intolerable, let alone vile and uncivilised. But I fear that any reporting button would quickly become abused.

    For example, environmentalists might target an oil company in an attempt to drive it offline.

    Twitter would have to decide what constitutes abuse, so it becomes judge and jury over freedom of speech and social behaviour.

    As an American company, one might expect Twitter to err on the side of freedom to speak out. But as a company with shareholders and much in the public eye (or do I mean the eye of the press?), it might become ultra-cautious and ban anyone causing a public fuss. We have enough problems with the authorities clamping down on freedom of speech without handing responsibility to a commercial company based overseas.

    Perhaps a button should report abuse directly to the police. That would make people think twice before clicking it. But it would probably overload the authorities. It might even encourage the police develop a pro-active policy of profiling “abusive” Twitter users – our enforcement agencies would then move one more step towards policing behaviour rather than criminality.

    Yet surely we cannot a situation where abuse is allowed online that is not tolerated in everyday life?

    This is quite a moral maze, but a solution can’t be driven by a moral panic driven by the press. It needs detailed research and evaluation of options – evidence policy as we used to call it.

  • Good comment in the Guardian

    I agree that we have laws already to deal with specific threats and that an abuse button will become a tool to silence free speech. Report real threats to the police, and let social change and weight of response shame the rest into growing up/going away.

  • Helen Tedcastle 29th Jul '13 - 11:01am

    A ” report abuse” button is a deterrent – a small one perhaps but it may make some people think again. Stephen Tall fears that adding an abuse button may be like imposing ‘no platform.’ How? This is not about free speech but the hurling of abuse, hate and misogyny. These people do not engage in debate or argument – this is about intimidation.

    I don’t think we should tolerate that.

  • Jennie is right. This is a far wider problem than just twitter. This misogyny is wholly unacceptable, but it is part of a pattern of abusive behavior right across the so-called social media. People using social media seem to assume that they can say whatever they like, including lots of stuff they would never say in a face-to-face encounter.

    This attack on women is appalling, but it’s not limited to women. I have had tons of bile and manure poured on me by people who disagree with what I have written, without a thought as to the effect it would have.

    It’s time the whole social media scene pulled itself up short and started to write in a way that allows discussion and disagreement but leaves out the rudeness and abuse.

  • Jennie – I was thinking about the anonymity aspect. Stuff like this suggests to me that it is the idea that you are doing it without being known that means people do it:

  • Hmmm, but anonymity also helps the oppressed have a voice – not just Arab spring but whistle blowers in this country among many other groups

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