Your Reputation On Twitter Matters – Why Is There No @Abuse Team For Defamation?

About six weeks ago I wrote an article on Twittercism entitled, “Why Replies On Twitter Are Far More Damaging Than Direct Messages“. The general point was that while various protective measures are applied to the direct message system to prevent abuse, anybody can send a reply to anybody else on Twitter, whether you’re following each other, or not.

Moreover, those replies, even if one or both of the parties has blocked the other, go into the Twitter stream, and are viewable by anybody else on the platform, through search, and so on. So, you can essentially say whatever you like, and it remains ‘out there’.

This is a big problem for Twitter, and nobody seems to be doing anything about it.

Check out Twitter’s terms of service (a one-page summary is viewable here). Twitter provides legislation about the use of the platform in various ways, including (direct quotes):

  • Impersonation: You may not impersonate others through the Twitter service in a manner that does or is intended to mislead, confuse, or deceive others
  • Privacy: You may not publish or post other people’s private and confidential information, such as credit card numbers, street address or Social Security/National Identity numbers, without their express authorization and permission.
  • Violence and Threats: You may not publish or post direct, specific threats of violence against others.

This is all fine, and there are various other service limitations that I encourage you to read. The problem is that none of them in any way concern the problem of defamation; that is, one user saying something libellous about another.

This happens all the time on Twitter. It’s happened to me on several occasions. It’s happened to lots of people I know. It’s possibly happened to you. You may not even be aware of it, and that might lead you to believe that it then doesn’t matter, but it does. Why? Because potentially millions of other people might have seen that message about you.

What I’d like to see Twitter do is add another entry to their TOS that says something like:

  • Defamation: Users may not publish or post libellous or knowingly fabricated allegations against others

And with that, what I think Twitter has long needed is a way to flag individual tweets for abuse. We can already report spam accounts to @Spam – Twitter needs an @Abuse team that investigates all reports that concern defamation (as well as violent threats, etc, as per their TOS) and responds accordingly.

(Incidentally, there is already an @abuse account – he seems a charming fellow. I don’t see Twitter having much problems getting that back.)

Reputation is important, and increasingly so in the online world. The last thing anybody wants to see on Twitter is lawyers. That’s an inevitability to some extent, as any public message system is going to see things being said and done that will lead to legal action. But by taking this relatively simple step themselves – and yes, maybe having a lawyer or two on staff to make knowledgeable decisions – they can prevent the courts getting involved over every little thing. We’ve already had a silly situation with St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa suing the network.

As it is, people have told me they are reporting issues regarding defamation to Twitter and not getting a response. Twitter’s help ticket system is lousy enough as it is, but at least the @Spam account seems to serve a genuine purpose and, you know, do something. An @Abuse team seems a logical and necessary next step.

Of course, the reality here is this will probably only come to pass once a celebrity gets seriously defamed on the network – the legal threats that will follow an issue of that kind of magnitude will get an army of lawyers involved, and produce scores of column inches amidst Daily Mail-esque ‘end of civilisation’ reportage. My gut feeling says it will probably involve P. Diddy.

If Biz, Jack and Evan act now, and implement the necessary procedures, we can avoid a lot of this kind of thing and get on with the business of Twitter. The money flow goes both ways, lads.