Will Twitter protect its users properly?

The social networking site will need to do more to prove it takes abuse seriously

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.

Inadequate males
It comes as no surprise to anyone who spends much time online that the internet has more than its fair share of inadequate males seeking retribution for some perceived assault on their masculinity. Misogyny is rife online and prominent women bear the brunt.

“It is a problem involving a certain type of man who can’t cope with a woman being vocal and being in the public eye,” said Criado-Perez last week. “They deal with it by shutting women up with threats of sexual violence. It is nothing new, it has been going on for millennia; this is just its most recent incarnation,”

Rape threats and bomb hoaxes are in themselves illegal, of course, and it remains to be seen whether the police will be able to track down all the culprits in these cases. But some people ask why it’s possible to post such material online in the first place.

As former Conservative chairman Alistair McAlpine demonstrated last year, if you’re rich enough it’s possible to pursue not just the original person who defames or threatens you on Twitter but also anyone who retweets that defamation or tweet online. Twitter, however, is a platform rather than a publisher, and therefore is no more responsible for the original publication of the offensive tweet than a phone company is when a harassing call is made on one of its lines.

Twitter may subsequently be required to delete offensive or illegal material and it will also suspend accounts if it finds reports of abuses are accurate. But the question raised by last week’s events is whether the company has the right systems, policies and resources in place to act promptly to protect its users.

“We have rules which people agree to abide by when they sign up to Twitter,” a spokesman said last week. “We encourage users to report an account for violation of the Twitter rules by using one of our report forms.” All very well but if someone is under attack from a multitude of anonymous accounts filling out individual abuse reports for each one doesn’t sound like much of a remedy.

Hippie-libertarian principles
Companies such as Twitter make much of their roots in the hippie-libertarian principles of the early internet, where absolute freedom of speech, no matter how objectionable, is a given. It's this unmediated discourse which has made social media such a potent tool for dissidents mobilising anti-authoritarian movements around the world. But that philosophy also conveniently supports a light-touch, low-cost approach to monitoring real abuses that makes business sense for companies aggressively building monopolies in their respective spheres of influence.

It is completely unrealistic to expect, as some have suggested, that companies should monitor all the posts on their sites – you might as well shut down the internet tomorrow – but from now on Twitter will have to think more seriously about its responsibilities towards its users.

Hugh Linehan is editor of irishtimes.com