Steve Nimmons
Documentary Photographer and Visual Artist

Twitter, Troll Free by 2014

In a Press Association interview today I spoke of the urgent need for monitoring and education initiatives to protect users on social media platforms including Twitter.

This follows the appalling abuse directed at Caroline Criado-Perez, who successfully campaigned for Jane Austin to appear on new £10 notes in the UK.

Labour MP Stella Creasy speaking out in support of Criado-Perez was subjected to a torrent of vile abuse including threats of rape.

There has been a significant backlash to these incidents and pressure is rising on Twitter to take decisive action. An online petition has attracted almost 100,000 signatures. There is however an underlying question: what can Twitter realistically do to marshal ‘the wild west’ of electronic communications?

Complication #1 – scale:

  • Twitter has around half a billion users, in 2012 there were approximately 500 million tweets per day with tweets per second peaking at anything up to 7,000
  • In 2011 Twitter users were posting 1 billion tweets per week, in 2013 this is closer to three billion. One billion tweets per day is easily imaginable
  • Half a million accounts are created daily
  • The number of employees of Twitter is circa 400
  • When Twitter implements enhanced reporting functionality how will this be monitored and scaled? It is difficult to see how this would practically work without algorithmic / automated processing

Complication #2 – jurisdiction:

  • Twitter users are spread across the globe, with different laws applying in each jurisdiction. Abuse directed at a user within a jurisdiction by another user within the same jurisdiction (intra-jurisdictional) is the ‘simple case’. The complex cases are inter-jurisdictional abuse. Which legal system has primacy and how will this be resolved?

Complication #3 – the crime scene:

  • In the cases of Caroline Criado-Perez and Stella Creasy there can be little doubt that a criminal offense has taken place. The powers, skills and experience of those tasked with investigating (what is effectively a digital crime scene) must be to a level required to meet the standards of criminal prosecution

Complication #4 – identity:

  • The troll hides behind anonymity. They use an alias, create a disposable email account and possibly hide behind a proxy server (to cloak their IP address and location)
  • Troll accounts are usually very opaque and extremely difficult to link to the actual owner, without specialist investigation skills provided by law enforcement or ‘other agencies’ and a subpoena to access internet provider data. In many ways this amplifies the ‘terrorising effect’ of their nefarious activities
  • Impersonation could also be used as a tactic to defame a victim – e.g. posting inappropriate tweets purporting to come from that person

Complication #5- spurious reporting

  • There is a counterpoint and counter-narrative to almost everything in life. State an opinion and be assured that contradiction will follow. What constitutes fair ‘right of reply’ versus inappropriate abuse?
  • In the cases outlined above there is no ‘grey area’ (as clearly criminal acts have occurred). Twitter could be ‘overwhelmed’ however with spurious reporting of opinion that the ‘opposing position’ does not like

Complication #6 – hierarchy

  • Within certain parameters public figures are considered to be ‘fair game’ for criticism and even ridicule
  • Corporations protect themselves from reputational damage and may litigate if defamed
  • Private citizens are usually treated differently from public figures in the press. Is there any such distinction in social media? Is a private citizen engaged in public discourse on Twitter putting themselves in the ‘public domain’?
  • Recent anti-Semitic incidents in France introduce another interesting perspective in terms of protection of religious, social and ethnic groups, in addition to the protection of the individual

Although this is an interesting sociological and technological problem there are real and significant numbers of victims. I think Twitter will struggle to implement monitoring and reporting features that are scalable.

We live in a post-digital world, and that leads me to ponder whether ‘good digital citizenship’ is something we should promote in primary and secondary education. There is a clear need for an holistic approach which combines reporting, investigation and prosecution with avoidance through education and an unambiguous understanding of the consequences of illegal acts using social media.

A think-piece on ‘community restorative justice for the digital age’ may follow!

In the meantime my campaign slogan is “Twitter, Troll Free by 2014”. Let’s hope that is a realisable vision…

About the Author
Steve Nimmons is a writer, documentary photographer and visual artist based in Northern Ireland.