Caroline Criado-Perez, #ReportAbuse and Twitter

In a 2010 column on abusive comments posted below online articles, I wrote:

As Theodore Dalrymple reminds us in his “Thank you for not expressing yourself”, “The immediacy of the response which the internet makes possible also means that people are able to vent their spleen in a way which was not possible, or likely, before. The putting of pen to paper, to say nothing of the act of posting the resultant letter, requires more deliberation than sitting at a computer and firing off an angry e-mail or posting on a website.”

This, I believe, captures the essence of when it is permissible rather than gratuitously offensive to resort to abuse: Would you have said the same things in an old-fashioned letter to the editor? Would you say the same thing to the columnist in person, if you were to meet him at a dinner party? If yes, I say go ahead. But if not, perhaps you should do yourself and all of us a favour, and simply shut up.

But there’s no chance, or a vanishingly small chance, that the trolls will do us that favour. After all, their purpose is to (at least) provoke and offend, and telling them to shut up will do little but invite them to send some abuse your way. So what can we do?

imagesThousands of people have now signed a petition for Twitter to introduce a “report abuse” button, where this petition was precipitated by the numerous rape threats that Caroline Criado-Perez received after her campaign to have more women feature on UK banknotes. Notung has highlighted some of the issues in a recent post on SkepticInk, and I agree with his skepticism regarding implementing such a reporting mechanism efficiently.

For all the properly abusive Tweets and Internet comments that people somehow think it appropriate to send, this reporting mechanism will surely be exploited by those who want to simply censor things/people they don’t like – or just for mischief (think 4Chan or similar). So whatever else happens, I’d hope for there to be a human or team of humans assessing reports of abuse – carefully – before implementing any bannings or account terminations.

But it’s not as simply as a mere free speech issue for me, because asking the victims of abuse to simply “deal with it” doesn’t acknowledge the fact that some of us are more equipped to deal with abuse than others are – and that those who are less equipped to deal with abuse tend to attract more of it (getting a reaction being, after all, part of the point of being a troll).

It’s also not as simple as saying “don’t feed the trolls”, partly because that smacks a little of victim-blaming, and also because – thanks to the ubiquity of the Internet and a postmodern rejection of authority – everyone thinks that they are an expert on everything, and aren’t afraid to express their views, no matter how ill-considered those views might be. There’s seems to be an intolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty, which results in a default stance of dogmatism and hostility on many corners of the Internet.

Furthermore, as Notung points out, an unintended consequence of a “report abuse” button might be that those who are calling for the button get reported for abuse themselves. Not only because some “social justice warriors” can be rather brutal (in terms of using abusive language) in response to anyone who questions their point of view, thus perhaps meriting being reported, but also simply in retribution for perceived slights. (I don’t mean to generalise about social justice warriors, by the way. I’m referring to the subset of those concerned with social justice issues that appear to be ideologues, brooking little or no dissent).

Like Notung, I don’t have any answers here. But my two suggestions are:

  1. That more jurisdictions think carefully about implementing legal frameworks that are updated for the digital age, where every abusive twit has access to the means to cause distress to people like Criado-Perez. New Zealand is currently investigating how to go about this, and I think it’s important to work from first principles here. Existing laws on libel, defamation and the like would usually not take 21st-Century communicative possibilities into account, but if we did so, it might well be possible to eliminate much of the abuse without threatening free speech unduly.
  2. That we continue playing what part we can in discouraging trolls. I’ve written extensively about this before, in these two columns as well as numerous others – and a persistent fear for me is that if we don’t continue actively trying to provide quality content and commentary, blocking and banning trolls on our respective websites, the environment will become unattractive enough that some folk won’t even bother to read, let alone comment. Yes, the Internet is a free-speech zone, and should remain so – but you don’t have an obligation to allow any content on your corner of it. Just like you’d kick an abusive ass out of your house, do so on your blog, or your Twitter feed.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.