Recent stories surrounding online abuse on twitter have been met with controversy, for obvious reasons, because the discussion brings up issues surrounding hate speech, freedom of speech and censorship.
The recent case of Leslie Jones is one of highest profile stories in the last few months regarding…how else do I say it, Twitter’s failure to protect its users from online abuse. While Facebook has a web presence that seems to be aimed at preventing online bullying and abuse, and genuinely seems to want to protect its users, Twitter on the other hand is falling short.
That’s not the say the company is not making an effort. Twitter also has in place the process for reporting abusive behaviour, and just yesterday, the company unveiled new ways to filter out tweets that may not be tweets we want to see by enabling a quality filter. The problem with this is that it is up to the user to actively filter out tweets, but still leaves others free to post horrible things to other people.
So why do we hear so much about online abuse on Twitter, more than any other site? Well there are a few reasons.
Within a community, there are set moral codes that most people abide by, and if they don’t, there are consequences to that behaviour. If you think back to our hunter-gatherer days, if one person in a small group of humans wronged the group or an individual in a group, they would be exiled, ostracized or punished. This is largely how our modern criminal justice system works, but it’s dependent largely on the concept that individuals responsible are held to account for their actions.
But what if we don’t know who is responsible?
This is the problem with social networks that allow anonymity in their user profiles. Without links to a real identity, people are free to act without fear of consequence, meaning they will say things on sites like Twitter that they may be less inclined to do on sites like Facebook. On Facebook, for the most part, we are who we say we are. There are outliers of course, with alternate names used, fake names used and the like, but largely, the experience of users on Facebook closely mirrors the real world.
If you say something stupid or mean, your ‘friends’ will see it and either hold you to account, or validate your viewpoints. If threats are made, it’s very clear who is making that threat. The threat can be reported and there are consequences such as limiting your account or banning you.
For sites that are based on anonymity, this abuse happens more often, and, judging by the news lately has been permitted to occur for much longer than it should.
So if Twitter accounts were linked to real world verified accounts for individuals, would this solve the issue?
Maybe. It would definitely discourage those who are engaging in online abuse to do so, and it would easily provide authorities with an identity they can follow up with, if the threat is deemed criminal in nature.
In the early days of the web, we saw our online personas as different than our identity in the real world, but as social media evolves to assist us in the crafting the brand of ‘self’, the idea that our real world identities and our online ones should be linked is not that far fetched.
The right to abuse others.
Which brings us to the next point. Who has the right to abuse others?
The answer to that is a complicated one. When thinking about the cases of Twitter and Facebook, each company is free to do what they want, and each company is taking different measures to protect their users. And that’s what it comes down to, protecting innocent individuals from threats of violence, racism, sexism, bigotry and any other form of online harassment.
Pull on a string and the sweater becomes unravelled, eventually destroying the sweater. One act is inextricably tied to the other.
Twitter seems to protect the right of its users to use abusive speech towards others. The protection of threats of rape, of murder, of racist, sexist, homophobic hate crimes.
By protecting this form of speech, Twitter is, by its own lack of leadership, complicit in the victimization of innocent people.
Is the individual responsible?
The argument that individuals can police themselves may not be the most sound argument, either.
Of course everyone is responsible for their own actions, that is true, but this does not say anything about how others are protected from the actions of those who engage in online abuse.
We have laws in place to discourage physical abuse, assault and murder designed to protect innocent civilians. These laws are, by and large, followed, ensuring the protection of millions of lives from physical harm, emotional and psychological trauma.
The consequence of these actions are imprisonment, or worse. When these laws are not in place, as in the case of countries plagued by civil unrest, like civil war, or revolution, these laws simply don’t matter and people will act, causing incredible harm to others due to a lack of protection of the innocent.
The idea that people are able to just ‘act respectfully’ online and leave it up to the individual doesn’t seem to be working, and the only people who end up suffering are the victims of this abuse.
So what is the answer?
When the victims of online abuse and hate speech are kept up at night due to threats of death, threats of rape, and other terrible crimes of hate, who is responsible for protecting them?
In the case of the real world, the government is. The law is. Some laws enacted by governments regulate the actions of the citizens with the sole purpose of protecting lives.
In countries where hate speech and verbal abuse is illegal, first and foremost the government plays a role in protecting the citizenry. In countries like the United States where this form of speech is protected and is seemingly intertwined with national identity, the lack of laws protecting citizens from hate speech essentially forces the government to be complicit in the victimization of innocent people and by non-action allows emotional and psychological trauma to persist. If the government won’t protect Twitter’s users through anti-hate speech legislation, then Twitter should protect its own users.
How can we cut down on abuse online that causes damage in the real world?
There are many things that Twitter can do, and this issue is not just Twitter’s burden to hold. It’s a social issue as well, because the abuse that happens online always has an effect in the real world.
- Take away the ability to hide behind anonymity.
- Immediately banning any accounts that make threats of any kind
- Give the user control over how tweets can be engaged with
These above points are simple, but the best thing that Twitter and others in the tech industry can do as our online lives continue to merge with the real world is bigger.
Make online abuse front and centre, through leadership, education, and and most importantly, a commitment to end online abuse to protect users, and promote mutual respect. Without a commitment to end online abuse, Twitter continues to be complicit in allowing its users to be victims.