29 Jul 2013

How can you stop the trolls?

Protesters are calling for a button to report abuse, feminists want a culture change. But what will stop the trolls on Twitter? We ask the experts.

The troll question flared up at the weekend, after a slew of violent and misogynistic tweets directed at a feminist who helped put Jane Austen on the new £10 banknote.

After spearheading the campaign that will see Austen on notes in 2018, Caroline Criado-Perez received what she has described as “24 hours of rape threats”: 50 abusive tweets an hour for 12 hours detailing rape and murder threats.

Twitter not outside the law

“This isn’t about Twitter, this is a case of people who thought Twitter was outside the law and they were wrong,” said Dr Bernie Hogan, research fellow at the Oxford Institute of the Internet.

But while violent, detailed and credible threats are illegal under UK law and can result in prosecution whatever way they are sent, many tweets that are just nasty and unpleasant will not be picked up by the police. Do people just have to live with the trolls on open platforms like Twitter?

“The law is a blunt instrument” said Professor Andrew Murray, a specialist in internet law at the London School of Economics.

“You need to supplement it with a mixture of techniques. People who have made threats deserve to be dealt with to the full extent of the law.”

Protesters are calling for quicker ways to report abuse on Twitter, by installing a report button on every tweet. A petition on change.org has attracted over 50,000 signatures.

But while this may help, said Professor Murray, a technical solution is not likely to be the answer.

“I’m always concerned about technical controls because they have a tendency to over-regulate,” he said. “The question is who decides what goes beyond banter into abuse or harm? If you’re using a technical tool to do that it doesn’t have any discretion, it just follows pre-arranged rules. An important part of the answers could be education.”

People troll for many reasons. Stopping it is hard. Simply laying down the community rules can help, said Professor Murray.

“Part of the problem is that people who were making these comments are not aware of what they were doing because they come from a hacker community where this kind of language is is acceptable. People have to say to them – you can’t say this on Twitter. This is a different space. People don’t grasp the idea of different spaces.”

Beyond Twitter

And then the problem goes beyond Twitter and beyond the internet, said Dr Hogan, who agrees that living with trolls may be the reality for the foreseeable future.

“Misogyny, racism and prejudice are not new but the ability to use it in this way is. We can diagnose the damage, but curing it is not as easy as censoring it.

“It involves a whole host of things that are not just online.”

Training and education may help, he believes, but there are always emotive and damaging words out there.

Twitter’s choice to mix real name accounts with anonymous accounts makes for a more precarious mix than on other sites such as Facebook, Dr Hogan said. But it also involves the co-operation of social media companies who allow anonymous identities next to named accounts and verified accounts. If they want to have that mix, then they to be smarter about doing it.

Advice on dealing with a troll here.

Twitter: ‘We will add report abuse button’

Twitter responded Monday to requests for a report abuse button on all tweets, mentioning that such a button already exists on certain Twitter apps. “The ability to report individual Tweets for abuse is currently available on Twitter for iPhone, and we plan to bring this functionality to other platforms, including Android and the web.”

As for what Twitter does about abuse when it get reported, the spokesperson said: “We don’t comment on individual accounts. However, we have rules which people agree to abide by when they sign up to Twitter. We will suspend accounts that once reported to us, are found to be in breach of our rules.”

One 21-year-old man in Manchester was arrested by police on the weekend on suspicion of harassment.Police announced on Monday that the man has been bailed until mid-September.