Rabid trolls prompt Twitter to promise 'Report Abuse' button on all messages

Filed Under: Featured, Social networks, Twitter

Twitter abuse buttonUK journalist and feminist leader Caroline Criado-Perez spearheaded a campaign to replace Charles Darwin's image with Jane Austen's on a British banknote.

Good idea, said the Bank of England. Then, all hell broke loose.

For nearly 48 hours following last Thursday's announcement that Jane Austen's likeness would grace the £10 note starting in 2017, the death and rape threats poured in from Twitter.

According to Criado-Perez, during that period, she received a flood of internet trollery ejaculated at the rate of 50 pieces of scum per hour.

At least one of her supporters, MP Stella Creasy, also received murder and rape threats.

On Sunday night, police arrested a 21-year-old man in Manchester in connection with the hostile tweets.

Over the weekend, the vitriolic storm had serious repercussions for Twitter, which is now looking at a threatened boycott for its failure to stop this kind of abuse.

As of Wednesday morning, a Change.org petition calling for Twitter to add a "report abuse" button to its service had attracted 106,258+ supporters.

Twitter has responded, promising exactly that.

TechDay reports that Twitter will work on such a button, added to all messages, though it's already available on iPhone apps.

The company plans to expand the function to Android and beyond.

As it is, Twitter's existing rules call for suspension of accounts that get reported for abuse of its rules.

That, obviously, wasn't sufficient for many people.

In the fallout from the Criado-Perez incident, Mark S. Luckie, manager of Journalism and News on Twitter, was forced to lock down his account in response to public outcry, TechDay reports.

Beyond the new Report Abuse button, Twitter asked for all police reference numbers and specific tweets so that the company can ensure that both Criado-Perez and Creasy were "connected to the right people for conversations to continue on Monday", according to HuffPost.

HuffPost reports that Creasy had asked for a meeting with Twitter, along with fellow MP Steve Rotherham "on how we ensure that Twitter is able to comply with the Protection From Harassment Act in Britain."

Whether or not a Report Abuse button will help curb such attacks is now a matter of debate, as can be seen on Twitter itself.

One user, Simon Evans, suggested that such a button would be used "with all the restraint [with which] the Simpsons used their electric shock buttons on each other."

On the broader subject of just what, exactly, happens to reports of abuse, the BBC filed a Freedom of Information request.

The request has revealed that more than 1,700 cases involving abusive messages sent online or via text message reached English and Welsh courts in 2012, the BBC reported on Tuesday.

That represents a 10% increase on the figures for 2011, according to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

Many users of Twitter, along with other platforms, make threats of murder or death, often meant as jokes.

Just yesterday three more female UK journalists - Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman, Independent columnist Grace Dent and Time magazine's Catherine Mayer - received the same bomb threat from anonymous users on Twitter that details how there had been bombs placed outside their houses, ready to explode at exactly 10.47pm.

It's important to bear in mind that such threats are a criminal offense in many places, regardless of whether they spout from a pugilistic mouth or via email, blog, phone call, or newspaper ad.

Here's a blurb from the law in the US state of Alaska:

A person commits the crime of coercion if the person compels another to engage in conduct from which there is a legal right to abstain or abstain from conduct in which there is a legal right to engage, by means of instilling in the person who is compelled a fear that, if the demand is not complied with, the person who makes the demand or another may inflict physical injury on anyone...

Under California law, a death threat of any kind, whether it's meant as a joke or not, is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison and restitution payments for any personnel, emergency response, or property damage the threat causes, according to attorney Daniel Jensen.

A theoretical example, from Jensen's law office:

If you plant a fake bomb and issue a death threat, even as a joke, you can be fined for the full cost of containing and disposing of the fake bomb. Depending on what cleanup services are needed, if any, these fines could be substantial.

Troll. Image courtesy of ShutterstockOK, sounds serious. Do such laws actually stop anybody? If so, you'd think that internet trolls would be lawsuited into oblivion, right?

There have been scads of court cases involving intimidation-via-social media, but what's the likelihood of anybody actually getting convicted and penalized?

Well, that's a good question, I told myself.

Here are a few cases of Twitter prosecutions:

  • Two teenage girls from Steubenville, Ohio: arrested in March and charged with sending online threats to a 16-year-old rape victim via Twitter. A 16-year-old was charged with a misdemeanor count of aggravated menacing for threatening the victim's life; a younger girl was charged with a misdemeanor count of menacing for threatening bodily harm. They were both charged with intimidation of a witness, which is a felony.
  • Paul Chambers: convicted in UK court of a terrorist offense based on a tweet threatening to blow up Robin Hood Airport because they couldn't get snow cleared. It was obviously a lame joke, and the decision was overturned on appeal in 2012.

Short of prosecution, what do you think about Twitter's Report Abuse button?

Will it help to shut these trolls the &^%$$ up?

Would a boycott of Twitter help? Or is that misplaced blame, given that Twitter can't possibly police every single tweet that flows through it?

Your thoughts are welcome - particularly since somebody(ies) behind the magic curtain at Naked Security headquarters, praise be, keeps troll comments from getting published.

(Thanks, guys!)

Image of online troll courtesy of Shutterstock.

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9 Responses to Rabid trolls prompt Twitter to promise 'Report Abuse' button on all messages

  1. Knobblykneez · 456 days ago

    I'm not absolutely certain that such a button will be effective - as Simon Evans states, this button will be used indiscriminately and may flood the back office working on abuse and threats to the point that real abuse gets missed. Is it not up to an individual to take any necessary action themselves instead of relying on Twitter to deal with it on their behalf? If I were to receive a threatening letter through the mail system I could choose to shrug it off as an idiotic attempt to frighten me or I could go to the police. I would not expect Royal Mail to handle the complaint for me. I think that what happened to these women was disgusting but the right thing was done by taking the case straight to the police.

  2. mittfh · 456 days ago

    Interestingly enough, TweetDeck (which has been owned by Twitter for several years) has had a "Block and Report" option for years...

  3. Trolls will simply use the abuse button to abuse their victims, tweeting one another to organize campaigns to complain of 'abuse' when there is none, when in fact they are only complaining about an opinion they disagree with. Far from providing any relief from trolls, an abuse button will only provide trolls with another method of intimidation and abuse.

  4. Richard · 456 days ago

    "Twitter's existing rules call for suspension of accounts that get reported for abuse of its rules."

    Just reported? Or do they check that the account has actually violated the rules before suspending the account?

    If it's the former, I can't see Richard Dawkins' account lasting long. At least one newspaper opinion column has already called for these changes to be used to silence him.

    Without sufficient checks in place, the only active accounts left will be the trolls and spammers.

  5. mywebninja · 456 days ago

    Although I certainly dont condone what happened. If you are an activist or journalist you will get attacked by trolls on the internet; the nature of the game. I know that from bitter experience. That is why there is a block button. Or even a switch on your computer to switch it off and help you live a little.

    The sad part about this is that it is now being used to enhance political careers.

    I dont understand Twitter - why worry about 100,000 when they have millions anyways - let them go on Facebook if they want quiet life.

  6. Cliff Jones · 456 days ago

    You can't legislate 'stupid' out of existence.

    The courts are no answer, either. That course enriches lawyers, but has zero effect beyond that.

    I think we all need to settle down and grow some skin... and use some of that NSA skynet stuff to flag real threats as opposed to the mere morons.

    The real "fix" is to instill a little bit of civility across the board. The majority of twenty-somethings I encounter are rather barbaric, socially. They've learned from their role models (entertainment, government) to ignore "consequences," as there basically are none, so far as any accountability for one's actions is concerned.

    What if there were no twitter? Would these journalists be aware of the thousands of comments uttered by readers in a heated moment, which now that they get written online (in the same heated moment) rise to the level of "death threats?"

  7. glassguest · 456 days ago

    I never understood the appeal of twitter. I don't use it. Most of the content out there is noise. What I don't like is every bloody web site has a tweet or Facebbook button. I wish I had a remove function for that. If twitter fell off the net today, I would yawn, raise a my coffee in a toast of farewell and godspeed and get on with life.

    Frankly it is not that hard to crack a twitter identity.

    But one day a troll is going to act, I just hope their victim has CCW. No one is taking global crime on the internet seriously enough. If it gets too bad and too hiorrid, people might just drop the net and thus cause new businesses focusing on doing things the old fashioned way. Saw a TED talk on that actually, and it made sense.

  8. 3caster · 456 days ago

    Hostile threats can be received on any communications medium. I once found one in my mobile telephone voicemail box. With a bloodcurdling Irish accent, in the days when the Provisional IRA were active, the voice said "I'm going to do your head in."
    The next day, I took the handset to the police, who did not take my report seriously. But it was an illegal message, and presumably Vodafone could have traced it. I'm still here to tell the tale, and it was probably a sick joker calling a random number.

  9. Dan · 454 days ago

    So now online abusers have a new tool to bully their victims with. The solution is to ignore them, not give them a new tool to play with.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.