Standing Up to Twitter Trolls

The benefits and pitfalls of a socially connected world.

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Social media giant Twitter is an 'emerging' company, so it can sit on its filing for a few more weeks.

Some people have been writing awful, even outright threatening things on Twitter, aiming their wrath at female writers and members of the British Parliament. But is that Twitter's fault?

The tweets were not just the usual crank-head remarks some people write in response to something or someone they don't like. These were deeply angry and potentially dangerous threats of rape and murder, including bomb threats.

The reason? In the case of Member of Parliament Stella Creasy and Caroline Criado-Perez, it was because they had advocated (successfully) to put a woman's face on ten-pound notes. Two men have been arrested for threatening to rape the women for their views.

Twitter has apologized for the tweets, and instituted a new policy that allows Twitters users to report abuse immediately to get the tweet taken down. That's admirable, but will it really stop the bad behavior? And was the one-day #twittersilence (a day of boycotting Twitter use) the right way to deal with the problem.

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The sorry truth is that there have always been bullies and there will always be bullies. What has changed is technology. Back in the days when there was no Facebook, no Twitter and no online comments sections for newspapers, malcontents had  to approach their victims in person, or at least on the phone, which required more courage than many bullies have (since aggressive bravado and cowardice are two sides of the same coin). Technology has given anonymity to trolls and hecklers, allowing them to post not only hateful and racist or sexist messages to the world, but to threaten people as well. And it is worse, especially for young people. Children who were being teased or bullied at school at least got a break when they came home. Now, the abuse is 24/7.

We can't get rid of the technology – nor would we want to. All of the social media sites have positive characteristics, be it reconnecting to a long-lost friend or helping to organize a grassroots revolution. And they have negative aspects, ranging from way too much oversharing about minutiae to actually threatening people. The fact that the technology exists is not the problem. It's how a few haters are using it.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Should Probable Cause Be Required for Police to Use Cell Phone Location Data?]

It was decent for Twitter to apologize, though probably not necessary. And standards, even if they are unenforceable or themselves abused, make sense. Newspaper websites, for example, are often filled with comments so uniform in their pure combativeness for combat's sake that they aren't worth reading. But some newspapers (thank you, Buffalo News) have forced online commenters to provide their names and addresses (which someone at the paper checks) just as has always been the case with letters to the editor. Reading the comments at the Buffalo News' site is a markedly different experience now. Even when the article topic is controversial, the comments are overwhelmingly thoughtful and respectful among those disagreeing with each other.

The Twitter boycott may only have had an opposite effect, since the people who would participate in the boycott are undoubtedly not the ones using Twitter to harass people. But the move also brought attention to Internet abuse, which is a positive thing. We can't blame the technology or even the people who run it. But we should all stand up against those who would ruin Twitter for the non-trolls.

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