Will Twitter protect its users properly?
The social networking site will need to do more to prove it takes abuse seriously
Companies such as Twitter make much of their origins in hippie/libertarian philosophies. They are also rather keen on ’light-touch’ regulation.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that, were she alive today, Jane Austen would never be off Twitter. The social network has become an essential ingredient in the social glue that binds us together. But what would Austen have made of the unpleasant fallout from the successful campaign, conducted primarily on social media, to install her as the new face on the UK’s £10 note?
Caroline Criado-Perez, the activist who led the campaign to ensure at least one woman would be represented on her country’s banknotes, was subsequently bombarded with reprehensible rape threats on Twitter. Other women who supported Criado-Perez, including Labour MP Stella Creasy, received the same treatment. When the targeted women contacted Twitter to report the abuse, they were far from satisfied with the response they received. Twitter’s manager of journalism and news, Mark Luckie, reacted by setting his account to private, making his updates invisible to most users – the online equivalent of a large, flightless bird sticking its head in the sand.
Police have arrested one man so far. But the anger at Twitter’s lackadaisical response hasn’t gone away. Some prominent users have called for a one-day boycott this weekend, while 100,000 people signed an online petition calling on the company to take stronger action against abuse. Twitter belatedly swung into damage-retrieval mode and has said it will roll out easier tools for reporting abusive tweets, already available in its iPhone application, across all versions.
The situation deteriorated further when a number of women journalists and activists received bomb threats from an anonymous account on Wednesday.
The controversy comes at a crucial time for Twitter which, since its launch in 2006, has become an indispensable part of the media and communications landscape for hundreds of millions of people across the world. Although valued at several billion dollars, the company has yet to find a convincing revenue model through which it can convert its huge user base into a profitable business on the scale of other tech giants such as Google and Facebook. And, as online services achieve global ubiquity, they are coming under increased scrutiny for the way they handle their tax affairs and their responsibilities to their customers. Current revelations about US security agencies’ unfettered access to data add to a generalised sense of unease about how our personal information may be used or abused for commercial or other purposes.
Once derided as a vehicle for narcissists to inform the world about what they were eating for breakfast, Twitter is now inescapable. Some people use it to keep tabs on the latest deep thoughts from One Direction, others to source and share specialist professional or academic information. Every self-respecting organisation and company now has some sort of a Twitter strategy. Whatever your interest, you’ll find it served on Twitter and you’ll usually find it faster there than anywhere else. News stories nearly always break first on Twitter these days, and media organisations have been among its most enthusiastic adopters
According to Ipsos/MRBI, in May 2013 27 per cent of Irish people had a Twitter account. Facebook has twice that number, but Twitter, because of its immediacy and greater openness, has more day-to-day impact and intersects more directly with traditional media such as newspapers, radio and TV. As a result, rarely a week goes by without some sort of Twitter-related controversy or conflict erupting.
All of which makes the service an irresistible target for the knuckle-
dragging meatheads who populate the ocean floor of the internet. Unlike Facebook, where users can communicate only by mutual agreement, on Twitter anyone can contact anyone else by simply putting that person’s address in the message. It’s this sort of simplicity and ease of use that has made the service so popular but leaves it wide open to the sort of abuse we’ve seen in the last few days. Also, whereas Facebook makes strenuous efforts to ban anonymous accounts (for its own commercial reasons), it’s possible to set up such an account within a few seconds on Twitter. For the most part, though, people use their real identities on the site, as this allows them to interact properly with friends and colleagues.