Jane Austen will be the face on the U.K.’s £10 bank note, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Caroline Criado-Perez, co-founder of thewomensroom.org.uk and the Week Woman blog. This news that the U.K.’s currency will include a woman besides the Queen was announced last week to great acclaim — and then, Criado-Perez found herself the target of a stream of abuse, including rape threats on Twitter.
British politicians say that the abuse should be considered a criminal act. Said Labor MP Stella Creasy,
“This is about more than making Twitter somewhere fun for everyone to enjoy. If we want a world where everyone can live hassle-free, then everyday expressions of inequalities need to be confronted – not least as they help ease the big inequalities.”
On Monday, police arrested a 21-year-old man on suspicion of harassment offenses. Saying that she had “stumbled into a nest of men who co-ordinate attacks on women,” Criado-Perez had reported the abusive tweets to the police after receiving “about 50 abusive tweets an hour for about 12 hours.”
On Saturday, Twitter rushed to clarify its current policies about abusive speech, stating that iPhone users are already able to report individual abusive tweets; the company said it is planning to make it possible for users of Androids and other devices to do the same. Users, Twitter also noted, can report anyone breaking Twitter’s rules of conduct, though only after filling out an extensive report form.
In return, British politicians characterized Twitter’s response as “weak” and even “inadequate.” Noting that such abuse should be reported to the police, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper emphasized that “social media platforms also have a responsibility for the platform they give users.”
Criado-Perez herself pointed out that Twitter’s current system is not set up to deal with the kind of abuse she received. As she commented, “if you get an abusive message, you can fill in an online form and make a complaint. But if you’re subject to hundreds of tweets it’s not practical … Twitter does not understand the nature of abuse online.”
Twitter Will Add an “Abuse” Button
With many calling for Twitter to add an “abuse” button, Twitter announced on Monday that it will do so for all major versions of its software. While noting that it is impossible for Twitter to monitor over 400 million tweets posted per day, Del Harvey, Twitter’s senior director for trust and safety, wrote on a blog post that “we are not blind to the reality that there will always be people using Twitter in ways that are abusive and may harm others.”
But such a well-meant effort to safeguard Twitter comes with strings attached. It could lead to over-policing of the social media site and even censorship, to the point of inviting unwelcome comparisons of Twitter to, for example, authoritarian regimes that keep a very close eye on what is said on social media and microblogging sites.
Twitter, after all, is a private company based in the U.S. As Jane Fae writes in the Guardian, it and Facebook “are deeply imbued with the United States’s first amendment and its sense of free speech, which can at times seem like the freedom of a privileged elite to speak, lecture and make jokes.” Why, asks Fae, is breastfeeding a “no-no” while “stuff about a woman being raped or beaten remains subject to debate”?
Twitter has evolved into a central source for breaking news. Figuring out how to respond to abuse and hateful speech including the rape threats that Criado-Perez had to deal with and that Labor MP Creasy has now been subjected to — as well as the recent homophobic comments like those of actor Alec Baldwin to a Daily Mail reporter — shows that the company is still learning how to fill this role.
Should online speech be regulated under precisely the same protocols as that offline — that is, is a threat on Twitter just as real as one made in the real world? How can Twitter remain a “forum for anonymous free speech” that still does not silence those who say things that are unpopular and inflammatory?
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