How to Tackle the Twitter Trolls?

TwitterA spate of unsavoury incidents of abuse and worse has put the social networking site Twitter in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

Until recently Twitter was the darling of the social media world: a fast-growing, easy-to-use, some would say addictive networking site which was also credited with creating a new brand of fast-moving citizen journalism in trouble spots across the globe.

With 200 million regular users worldwide generating 500 million tweets per day, Twitter was the place to be online. But now it’s getting a taste of some less welcome publicity: abuse, misogyny, arrests and a storm of bad PR for the brand which is being accused by MPs of not taking death threats seriously. Last night Twitter’s Head of Trust and Safety Del Harvey tried to shore up Twitter’s reputation but managed to come across as defensive and unprepared when grilled by Gavin Esler on on the BBC’s Newsnight programme.

The great advantages of Twitter – its immediacy and its worldwide reach – have suddenly become its Achilles heel. Now comments once made in haste, heard by some and forgotten are broadcast around the world: tweeted, retweeted and amplified. Ironically, some people seem to be using social media in an actively antisocial way. Armed with a veneer of anonymity, they tweet messages to strangers and celebrities which they would never dream of uttering face to face or over the telephone.

The saga reached its nadir this week when the Cambridge classicist Mary Beard confronted, outed and forced a grovelling apology from Twitter troll Oliver Rawlings, who had abused her online. The unedifying episode was just the latest in a series of outbursts which prompted a call for Twitter to add an abuse button to its site to enable users to report abusive behaviour. It followed reports by several women, notably Caroline Criado Perez, who campaigned for Jane Austen to feature on a banknote, and the Labour MP Stella Creasy, of shocking cases of threatening behaviour on Twitter.

Twitter responded to the calls on Monday, saying it plans to include a button for reporting abuse within every tweet.

But while Twitter should do everything it can to isolate and remove trolls, it would be wrong to expect the site to take sole responsibility for the actions of its users, just as it would be wrong to expect BT to crack down on crank phone calls. Tweeters who abuse, insult and threaten are a problem for the whole of society, not just for social media. JA