Over the weekend, we covered the news of Tony Wang, the general manager of Twitter UK, apologizing to women who have experienced abuse on its site, after a female UK lawmaker and several journalists received threats of violence.
In the face of very public backlash over the threats, Twitter responded by announcing it would be making changes to its policies.
I noted in my coverage that while direct threats of violence clearly cross a line and shouldn’t be tolerated, some of the proposed changes could have unintended consequences. Further, calls to label certain speech as a “hate crime” are concerning and would set a dangerous precedent, in my opinion. There needs to be some balance in determining how to handle real threats of violence versus speech that isn’t, well, pleasant. I’m generally in agreement that Twitter could do some things to help make it easier for targets of credible direct threats of violence or criminal cyberstalking to seek the proper assistance from authorities. But going too far to monitor speech becomes a slippery slope, and finding the appropriate solutions can be difficult.
One of Twitter’s proposed changes includes extending its mobile platform’s “report abuse” feature to its other platforms. This is one of those I mentioned has the potential for unintended consequences, as the “report for spam” feature is already abused to try and silence some users online.
Interestingly, this very point came up in a recent interview with Twitter CEO Dick Costolo on a variety of related issues.
From the Wall Street Journal (emphasis mine):
Mr. Costolo said he knows the benefits and costs of letting people post on Twitter anonymously—which Facebook doesn’t permit. “Doing so enables political speech in countries where political speech isn’t particularly welcome or worse,” Mr. Costolo said. “We think that’s really important.”
The unavoidable downside, Mr. Costolo said, is that people sometimes tweet “horrible, disgusting revolting things.”
To help counter abuse, Twitter several weeks ago started letting users click on a single button to initiate a report about tweets they believe are malicious. Some 40 employees review those claims.
At the end of July, Mr. Costolo was peppered with questions on Twitter about fears the company was shutting down accounts belonging to critics of Turkey’s government. Twitter says some people in Turkey are trying to silence rivals by reporting them as spammers.
Mr. Costolo said Twitter is trying to quash bogus spam reports that are politically motivated. Answering complaints, he wrote: “We understand the importance of this public, live, conversational platform across the world.”
I’ll add that the abuse of spam-block isn’t limited to dissidents and opposition in other countries. Politically active folks in the US have experienced this on Twitter from fringe opposition for a long time, and it continues to this day. (Hence, why you’ll see the hashtag #TwitterGulag on occasion).
That said, it will be interesting all-around to see how Twitter plans to handle bogus spam reports.
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