As trolling hits the headlines once more, NMK asks how it can be combatted

By Chris Lee

After Caroline Criado-Peréz, who campaigned for Jane Austen to appear on the new £10 note, faced rape threats on Twitter – the latest in a line of trolling attacks – the social network has responded to a 120,000-strong petition which asked it to add a “report abuse” button. But will the new function make a difference? NMK asked around.

Knowing me, knowing you

While in some instances – such as arrests made in the Criado-Peréz case, or in the Sally Bercow libel case – it is straightforward to take action, the challenge comes when dealing with anonymous trolls, according to Rachel Boothroyd, General Counsel for social media management agency, eModeration.

“Twitter has the registration details of users. But of course those details might be fake. Even if they’re real, Twitter will only release those details if you get a court order. And Twitter’s based in California, so a UK court can’t force it to release information,” she told NMK. “You have to go through the California courts to get the name of a user – essential information you need in order to prosecute.”

This has been done before, Boothroyd said, when South Tyneside Council secured a Californian court order to force Twitter to identify a person who had been posting abusive messages.

“This might be practical if you’re going after a single person. But going to the Californian courts might not be practical if you’re getting 50 abusive messages an hour, as Caroline Criado-Perez was,” added. “There are cost considerations. The cost of going to a Californian court will be prohibitive for most people. Unlike the UK, if you win, you don’t get your legal costs back.”

Boothroyd said she would like to see a system for ‘I’m under attack’, to enable a user to report high volumes of abusive Tweets, where Twitter focuses on sorting it out for the victim, or mass-barring people.

“No system will be completely fool-proof, but a changed focus might deter at least some people,” she added.

Education, education, education

So what action could be taken to make would-be trolls aware of the consequences of their actions?

Mike Flynn, CEO of digital marketing agency Fast Web Media believes more could be done to educate Internet users at a young age.

“In some respects, the real issue is one of society’s lack of empathy and the need to understand how empathy can work within society to make a difference and a better environment for all,” he told NMK. “This should probably be emphasised within our Schools as part of PSHE lessons. Specific School programmes such as CEOP/Think U Know, should continue to run and constantly be developed, as technology changes; educating children on how to use the Internet safely and what to do when things go wrong is essential. Employers should provide clear defined social media policies, referred to within contracts.”

Where does this leave freedom of speech?

Measures taken to combat trolls must balance the need for freedom of speech to flourish, according to some experts NMK spoke to.

Professor Mike Jackson, from Birmingham City University’s Business School, believes the introduction of the “report abuse” button is an important moment for Twitter.

It will enable Twitter to remove obviously illegal remarks. The other effects will depend on the stance Twitter decides to take. Some comments can be rude and/or abusive but they are not necessarily illegal. Twitter will need to take a stance on this,” Jackson said. “Will they veer on the side of free speech and let rude comments stand or will they become social policemen and censor contributions they don’t like?”

Tim Summers, partner at Old Street-based law firm Temple Bright, also believes that trolling raises “classic questions” about the “proper limits” on free speech. In the wholly new context of social media it is important that we strike the right balance in dealing with this challenge, he said.
“To treat Twitter as a publisher, which is legally responsible for what its users post, would be to over-regulate and jeopardise the good qualities at the core of this social network. For these purposes we should treat Twitter as a platform only, and the abusers must be dealt with first hand,” Summers argued.

“However, trolls hiding behind the cloak of anonymity may be difficult to prosecute – so we need Twitter to assist in regulation. The ‘report abuse’ button is a step in the right direction on Twitter’s part, as are the rules which people accept when signing up to Twitter – meaning that anyone guilty of a breach may be reported,” he concluded. “If we are to allow Twitter the status of a neutral platform, Twitter must be ready to engage in public conversation and take immediate action where necessary. It cannot afford to stand by and do nothing to block the threats or threat-makers."

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