When it became apparent in the week that Twitter wasn’t doing an about face on algorithmic timelines, another news story popped up that’s probably more significant in the long run than the order you read your news in. The Independent reports that ‘tailored filtering’ is already a reality for a number of Verified users: that is, the ability to ‘turn off’ tweets that aren’t relevant to the user, and effectively silence the noise that the platform generates. By noise, of course, I mean the trolls and the haters and the pornbots and the random crap that is produced by a small but significant number of users. This development comes as a result of a much publicised memo leaked from Twitter CEO Dick Costolo where he admits ‘we suck at dealing with abuse and trolls.’ Anybody who deals with the platform on a daily basis can attest and agree with the sentiment: however, is this really the way forward?
Is the means to deal with abuse simply to pretend it doesn’t exist?
I’d like to bring Lindy West to the stand, as a witness in the defence for actually confronting abuse and not simply blanking it out. Lindy has a lot of experience of the brutal, cruel side of internet ‘life’ and how anonymity is pretty much always a curse and never a blessing:
Being harassed on the internet is such a normal, common part of my life that I’m always surprised when other people find it surprising. You’re telling me you don’t have hundreds of men popping into your cubicle in the accounting department of your mid-sized, regional dry-goods distributor to inform you that – hmm – you’re too fat to rape, but perhaps they’ll saw you up with an electric knife? No? Just me? People who don’t spend much time on the internet are invariably shocked to discover the barbarism – the eager abandonment of the social contract – that so many of us face simply for doing our jobs.
You really need to take time to digest this article on how West confronted a particular troll who decided to take on the identity of her deceased father in order to abuse her, and how she decided to deal with the consequences. If this story were the exception, then I’d not have an issue with simply cutting the noise completely, but it is anything but. I’m well aware of the people on my feed who suffer all manner of abuse, from casual posts on their blogs to full on psychopathic stalkers. The problem, of course, is that there is no consequence for these obsessives, and as long as police/law enforcement isn’t going to take the vast majority of these issues seriously because there’s not enough evidence to build a reliable case? It’s open season for the Troll population.
Twitter’s solution is, in effect, a fucking huge spam filter. It just takes the noise away, making no effort to solve the problem at source. However, the company could reasonably argue (with some measure of success) that, as a communications medium, that’s not their job anyway. All they do is give you a platform, after all, how you choose to use it isn’t their issue… until you get high profile cases where Twitter is clearly used as a weapon. Take the case of John Nimmo and Isabella Sorley, who threatened journalist Caroline Criado-Perez and were bought to court. I picked the Mail headline for a reason: the two perpetrators are described as ‘a binge-drinking college graduate’ and ‘a jobless recluse living on benefits’ as if this somehow justifies their actions (which it absolutely doesn’t.) The thing is, perfectly normal people can be and are abusers. Just because you can turn their ‘low-quality’ tweets off doesn’t make them go away, nor does it provide any means to trace them or action them if their abuse is long-term. This is Twitter dodging a bullet that has real potential to kill many people, and only when that happens is there likely to be change. By then, however, it will be too late.
The biggest single issue, it seems to me, for anyone under attack from an abuser is the accumulation of prosecutable evidence. Unless you can build a workable case, there’s nothing to be done, and that’s before you then have to come up with the legal muscle to prosecute… and all that costs money that many people simply won’t have. It is a sad and depressing incitement of modern life that the default for most people does become ‘well, just ignore it and hopefully they’ll go away’ which is so wrong on so many levels it beggars belief. For anyone vulnerable, and I’m looking at kids and adults alike here, by the time you realise what’s been happening with online abuse, it can often be too late. Sticking your hands over ears and just pretending that nothing’s happening might work for some things, but it won’t for others. This isn’t an answer, it is a dangerous development where Twitter practices a blanket censorship of material under the belief that all of this material is basically harmless. That might work for 95% of cases, but the 5% it doesn’t?
Pretending a problem does not exist is not the way to solve it.