Twitter could make reporting abuse easier

Microblogging site testing new ways of simplifying reporting process for abuse

It has been an uncomfortable few days for social media, and Twitter in particular. The microblogging site has been threatened with a mass revolt from users, with threats to boycott the site on Sunday, August 4th, unless it made reporting abusive tweets an easier process.

Social media may have changed how we communicate, but if recent publicity were taken at face value, that may not always be a good thing. Social media and its users are being viewed in some quarters as an internet’s Wild West.

Twitter’s trouble began innocently enough. When Caroline Criado-Perez campaigned to keep a woman featured on Britain’s banknotes – besides the queen – the intention was to score a victory for feminism.

She won; Jane Austen will become the new face of the £10 note. But the day the news was made public, among the messages of congratulations on Twitter, Criado-Perez found abusive posts aimed at her. Among the less savoury responses, which were reported to Twitter, were multiple threats to rape her, a matter that was reported to the police.


A man was subsequently arrested in England, on suspicion of harassment offences.

Within a matter of hours, a petition was started on to try to force Twitter to make the process of reporting someone for abusive tweets a little easier. Earlier this week, it had gained more than 80,000 signatures and Twitter looked to be on the verge of taking action.

Forced to act
It wouldn't be the first time Twitter has taken action to protect its users. In October 2009, Twitter brought in a button that would allow users to report a Twitter account for spam. That came after an influx of bad accounts on the network and numerous complaints to Twitter.

For various reasons – free speech, the volume of tweets – Twitter can’t screen every single post to its site, so it relies on the network of users to keep it informed. But part of the problem was that for many users of the site, reporting tweets wasn’t a quick and easy process. And with more than 400 million tweets sent worldwide every day, across Twitter’s own site and third party apps, there’s a lot to sift through.

“The vast majority of these use cases which are positive. That said, we are not blind to the reality that there will always be people using Twitter in ways that are abusive and may harm others,” Twitter’s senior director of trust and safety Del Harvey wrote on Monday.

A spokesperson for the site confirmed to The Irish Times it was considering how to make reporting abuse easier for users. "We value the feedback from our users and are testing ways of simplifying the reporting process, including a broad roll-out of in-tweet reporting beyond the current availability on the iPhone app and mobile web. We have processes in place for working with law enforcement and are in communication with the police, as well as the affected parties."

The abuse directed at Criado-Perez isn’t an isolated incident. It’s becoming an increasingly common sight on social media as users get easy access to the target of their ire.

The EverydaySexism project, run by Laura Bates, has had abuse directed at it by both established Twitter users and anonymous "trolling" accounts. Bates has been a guest on a number of radio and TV stations as a result of her project; the negative reaction online has ranged from posters asking if men are immune from being victims of sexism to more extreme – and illegal – threats of violence and rape.

Closer to home, RTÉ presenter Ryan Tubridy is among those who have left Twitter, citing abuse, and fellow presenter Claire Byrne also shut down her account earlier this year, complaining about the abuse that was directed at her account.

But those who troll other users, even behind a fake name, may find they're still identifiable.

"True anonymity on the internet requires more than picking a catchy nickname and in fact can be quite difficult to achieve. Each interaction on the internet can be traced back to an IP address," explained security expert Brian Honan. "The IP address is assigned to you by your internet service provider, who for billing and legal reasons retain that information. Should the Garda need to identify who used a particular IP address they can gain access to that information with a court order."

Although users determined to hide their identity can try using a proxy service or a virtual private network to shield their true IP address from view, Honan points out that these services will also turn over the relevant information if the police show up with the correct paperwork.

“We also forget that when using the internet we leave other digital footprints behind us, such as email addresses, nicknames, location data hidden in photographs and we may also leak personal information,” Honan says.

And even if such abuse escapes the notice of the social networks themselves, users in Ireland may find their trolling expeditions may fall foul of laws here.

In March, representatives of Facebook and Twitter were called before an Oireachtas committee to discuss, among other issues, cyberbullying and online abuse from anonymous users. The meetings resulted in a report that recommended using existing harassment legislation to combat online harassment, despite a recommendation from the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection,Geoffrey Shannon, that cyberbullying be made a specific criminal offence in Ireland.

Twitter, for its part, is now holding its hands up and acknowledging that it failed Criado-Perez in its response to the abuse directed at her. Speaking on Sky News earlier this week, Del Harvey admitted the firm “needed to do better”. The company will have to tread a fine line in future between being responsive to user complaints and protecting the free speech of the platform, or risk alienating users.

Ciara O'Brien

Ciara O'Brien

Ciara O'Brien is an Irish Times business and technology journalist