After feminist campaigner Caroline Criado Perez was subjected to a sustained barrage of threatening tweets over the past three days, Twitter is facing calls to take faster, and stronger, action against online abuse.
Here are the details of what’s been happening.
When the Bank of England decided to replace Elizabeth Fry with Winston Churchill on new £5 notes, Criado Perez, who is a freelance journalist, reacted by organizing a campaign to fight the exclusion of women on banknotes. If the bank’s decision had been unchallenged, there would have been no women apart from the Queen on sterling banknotes.
Criado Perez’s campaign included a petition signed by more than 35,500 people, and it was a success – the bank announced last week that iconic English author Jane Austen will be featured on the new £10 when it’s introduced in 2017.
Criado Perez told the BBC that the abusive tweets, threatening to rape and kill her, began the day the bank’s announcement regarding Jane Austen was made. She went to the police after “receiving about 50 abusive tweets an hour for about 12 hours.”
But at that point she had already sought assistance from Twitter, which has still neglected to do anything about the situation.
Twitter’s official stance on reporting abuse is, as a Twitter spokeswoman detailed,
“We don’t comment on individual accounts. However, we have rules which people agree to abide by when they sign up to Twitter. We will suspend accounts that, once reported to us, are found to be in breach of our rules. We encourage users to report an account for violation of the Twitter rules by using one of our report forms: https://support.twitter.com/forms.”
Tony Wang, the general manager of Twitter UK, seconded: “We encourage users to report an account for violation of the Twitter rules by using one of our report forms.”
Twitter does have a “Report Tweet” button in its iPhone app and mobile website:
But no such button exists on Twitter.com, nor its other apps.
That might change soon.
An online petition has been started in response to the abuse Criado Perez received calling for Twitter to introduce a “report abuse” button. It has been signed by almost 60,000 people as of the morning of July 29.
And according to the Twitter spokeswoman,
“The ability to report individual tweets for abuse is currently available on Twitter for iPhone and we plan to bring this functionality to other platforms, including Android and the web.”
But the slow boil of anger in response to this incident is just getting started. Feminist journalist Caitlin Moran has called for a 24-hour Twitter boycott on August 4 to force Twitter to come up with an “anti-troll policy”.
And Labour MP Stella Creasy told the BBC, “This is not a technology crime – this is a hate crime. If they were doing it on the street, the police would act.” She had been chasing Twitter for 24 hours with no response – and she’s a government official!
So far, a 21-year-old man has been arrested in Manchester “on suspicion of harrassment offenses.” And the media buzz isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.
Criado Perez’s subjection to abuse comes on the heels of female journalists’ abuse via Twitter in India, and Grenada’s new law that makes it a criminal offense to insult someone online.
Closest to home, UK Prime Minister David Cameron recently announced an initiative to tackle child pornography across the Internet, including Twitter. Harrassment of women is not so far from that umbrella.
So here’s Twitter’s dilemma at this point: it has a proven track record of not wanting to police its users’ messages, wishing to be seen as a protector of free speech. And if it agrees to add a “Report Abuse” button on every platform, that will mean employing a large team of people to monitor and triage complaints.
What do you think Twitter’s move should be at this point? Whatever it does will have a ripple effect on its future, and perhaps the future of all social media.
If you’d like to sign the petition to add a “Report Abuse” button to tweets, head over here.