On the ongoing debate on how to deal with online threats and abuse
I blogged about this 18 months ago, taking the personal viewpoint of not feeding trolls or haters. But then how many of us have been on the receiving end of sustained abuse via social media where it becomes overwhelming? This is what Caroline Criado-Perez is having to put up with. Caroline, for those who do not know, was the driving force behind the campaign not just to ensure that women were represented on the back of the next new banknote, but more importantly getting the Bank of England to acknowledge and change its systems and processes. That for me is Caroline’s longer term impact. Yet there has been an awful backlash – one I cannot get my head around. As a straight man, I cannot understand why other men feel so threatened by Caroline to the extent that they feel compelled to send threats of violence to her in such numbers.
What if social media users cannot agree a solution?
At the moment, there is a significant variety of opinion on how we should challenge abuse and threats. In September 2012 I went to a gathering of Westminster Skeptics to discuss this issue. (See Safe Spaces). There were a whole host of names there that I was familiar with from left-liberal circles, along with a number of people from the world of journalism too. I came away from that gathering with the impression that people wanted something done about it, but didn’t trust ‘the state’ to be the body to be the institution to be the one doing something about it.
One of the problems inevitably is jurisdiction – corporations based in the USA have zero incentive to respond to breaches of UK law unless it starts hitting their bottom line or if their UK subsidiaries (assuming they have them) end up behind bars. One of the things I spotted in some of the abuse and threats that Caroline received were the number of (presumably American) men citing their constitutional right to freedom of speech. Which made me wonder why the debate about whether an English author should be on an English bank note should be an issue they should be concerned about.
A simple report button?
It’s one of the suggestions doing the rounds on Twitter – and the petition to get one added has got thousands of signatures in a very short space of time. However, such a button’s impact will be totally dependent on the quantity and quality of the staff that are employed to analyse and judge the posts reported to them. I discussed some of the issues when Amazon got stung not so long ago. My point is that too few staff are employed by firms with a large online presence to filter content that otherwise brings their organisations and brands into disrepute.
You’ve then got both legal and cultural issues too. One of the things Facebook got stung by – again on the issue of abuse of women – was the inconsistency of judging what was and what was not abusive content. One of the problems was that the people doing the analysing and filtering did not live in the countries, let alone the communities where the problems were first flagged. This meant that Facebook were both culturally and legally unsighted to what the issues were. The temptation for some tech firms is to see this as a tech problem that can be resolved by an algorhythm. The posting of abuse, hate and threats is not a technological problem; it’s a human problem. It requires a human solution.
Zoe Stavri makes the case against such a report button. Yet she’s not the only one who is saying that the abuse online reflects what is going on in wider society. There’s also a generational divide too. Only today I was talking to a volunteer at a local charity who said she didn’t do social media or the internet and saw it as a different world ‘not for her’. People older than me (early 30s) tend to separate online from offline, where as people younger than me see offline and online as one and the same thing – understandable given that those currently at school, college and university (under early 20s) will have next-to-no experience of what life was like before the internet. A generalisation that will inevitably have its exceptions – whether the children that don’t use social media to the tech-savvy pensioners.
We’ve got to accept that this is an issue that goes far beyond Twitter – while not absolving Twitter or other social media firms from their responsibilities.
That’s where it gets complicated – and where it means taking on some very powerful interests. None more so than the corporate media and the advertising industries. To what extent are the outputs from these industries feeding the monster of abuse – in particular against women? Only today, one of Puffles’ earliest Twitter followers was pictured in one national newspaper comparing a picture of her from her former modelling days in the late 1980s to a picture of her today protesting against shale gas fracking. I won’t link to it and you can guess the rest.
Responding en masse
Both Caroline and Zoe have made the case for and/or demonstrated the impact that responding en masse can have. In Caroline’s case it has been forcing some of the abusers onto the back foot by the weight of responses supporting her and going after the abusers. What’s been noticeable too is the number of men who are also speaking out against the abuse being dished out by people of the same gender. Richard Bacon covered this when he went after someone who posted repeated abuse to him.
Responding en masse isn’t just about social media world either – it’s important out and about too. But that’s easier said than done – especially in the case of ‘passer by’ abuse where it all happens in an instant and by the time you’ve worked out what has happened, the perpetrator has shot off down the road. That or responding to it involves some sort of personal risk because the perpetrator is either bigger than you and/or there are more of them than there are of you. But how do you build both communities and a culture where such abuse online and offline can be stamped out without having to resort to the police all of the time?
“If men aren’t being impacted, why should men do anything about it This is a women’s issue, isn’t it?”
I don’t agree that men aren’t being impacted – they are. If people – women in particular but not just, feel that they don’t want to use social media because of the abuse they’ll receive, then the rest of social media is at a loss. If someone who could otherwise enlighten me on something is unable to do so because of all of the hate out there, then the loss is not just that user or myself, but everyone else involved or interested in the topic at hand. It’s a barrier to the flow of knowledge – something that social media is supposed to facilitate.
Consider the analogy to that of the asthmatic & the non-asthmatic living in the same house down the same traffic-filled road. Just because the non-asthmatic doesn’t feel the same symptoms of the asthmatic doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist. It’s similar to those that tell more sensitive people to ‘toughen up’. Just because abuse and threats might be water off of a ducks back to some doesn’t mean that it’s like that for the rest of us. Again, if it means that intelligent positive contributions are being withheld, then it’s society’s wider loss.
Finally, there’s a basic human dignity issue for me. There’s enough hatred in the world without more people trying to perpetuate it.