Twitter’s freedom of speech

Caroline Criado-Perez, the journalist who successfully campaigned for Jane Austen to appear on British banknotes, has been subjected to a horrendous barrage of threats and abuse on Twitter, and has called for Twitter to improve the way it deals with abuse. Her supporters kicked off a petition asking Twitter for a better system, and they’ve had some success. The whole saga as it unfolded has been Storified by @kegill.

Twitter’s now said it will step up work on a ‘report abuse’ button for individual tweets. That’s a good step, but a button without something connected to it is just a placebo, and in this situation it won’t work unless it links to an action. Xbox Live’s community is enough to prove that abuse reports without enforcement are pointless, and that placebo buttons aren’t enough to deter campaigns of abuse or unpleasant individuals. And Facebook’s trigger-happy abuse policies are enough to prove that automated responses based on volumes of reports aren’t nuanced enough to be appropriate here either.

The problem is a human one, and it may be impossible to automate. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried, nor that the work is unimportant. Watching an abuse queue might not be the best way to solve the problem, nor a sustainable or scalable one. But I would love to see Twitter innovate around this issue. Moderation tools that understand the patterns of abuse on Twitter don’t yet exist, as far as I’m aware – and if they do exist, they clearly don’t work. I wonder what would happen if the same effort went in to understanding and predicting organised campaigns of abuse as spam campaigns.

I do not believe a solution is impossible. I do doubt whether Twitter thinks it’s important enough to devote significant resources to, for now, and I suspect it will continue to use freedom of speech as a convenient baffle.

If freedom of speech on Twitter means freedom to abuse, freedom to harass and to threaten, then speech on Twitter is not free. Freedom of speech for abusers means curtailed speech for victims. What critics of moderation tend not to understand is that both options force people to be silent. What supporters tend to believe is that it is better for the community as a whole to silence abusers than to allow victims to be silenced.

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Mary Hamilton

I'm an operations specialist, analytics nerd, recovering journalist, consultant, writer, game designer, company founder, and highly efficient pedant.

11 thoughts on “Twitter’s freedom of speech”

  1. If anyone in management at Twitter puts a bit of effort behind this, they could do it. I can think of a number of ways to automate this sort of thing, and with the talent pool that Twitter has on hand it’d be easy to implement *something*.

    But the initial versions won’t work perfectly (they never do), and it’s possible the backlash and abusers’ inevitable cries of “Censorship!” will ring more loudly in the echo chamber that Twitter’s management listens to.

    Do you think there’s room for client-side tools around this — steps victims could take to filter out (and/or automatically respond to or flag their abusers without having to be burned by their vitriol personally)? Or does the entire conversation need control to be really effective?

    1. There’s room for both approaches, I think. One thought by @flayman on Twitter was an ‘abuse lockdown’ mode that’d let you see only tweets from followers & following, block new followers, and trigger monitoring of your @-replies so abusive messages could be dealt with without you needing to receive those threats. That strikes me as a very interesting place to start.

  2. Your understanding of “freedom (of speech)” is quite utopian .. we’re not “free” to walk on water, we’re not free to be heard because we gotta work for a living and don’t even have enough time to participate in debates, politics, family, how unfair is that? No, nobody is free unless everyone is totally equal in every aspect of life. Welcome to hell. I prefer life on earth, there are obstacles, social relationships, various constraints. Some morons wish other people dead or raped? Deal with it! Welcome to reality. A “threat” is no proclamation and no incitement. Feeling intimidated by empty jabbering? Learn to deal with it. This is no paradise. Life is unfair. Hate speech is the price tag of freedom.

    1. When you suggest that people verbally attacked by others should just ‘Deal with it’ you are conflating freedom of speech with freedom from consequences. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom to say whatever you’d like without consequence, and nor should it. Those targeted by abuse have every right to seek recourse, both in the form of protection from further abuse (in which Twitter has a role) and punishment for abusers (restricted access to a platform used for abuse strikes me as sensible punishment, just as it is for spammers). The idea that ‘hate speech is the price tag of freedom’ presupposes that the freedom of people who spout hate speech is more important than the freedom of those people they are directing it against, which is a set of priorities I explicitly disagree with above the line.

      1. Hi, thanks for responding.
        Well, “freedom from consequences” is a made-up category. Someone telling others his opinion – and this act is not bullying – how can such a simple natural thing be “abuse”? How could you even think of illegalizing? Just because of your utopian concept of freedom. Consider your circular reasoning: Freedom of speech means freedom to say whatever you’d like WITH consequence. Well, you exclude hate speech from freedom by ban, you don’t give a hate speaker any chance to face rightful consequences. You strip him off freedom beforehand. But freedom is a meaningless concept by excluding what seems a nuisance for some, by ignoring constraints and obstacles in life, by excluding actions the speaker has to take responsibility for, by not wanting to hear someone doesn’t like you that much he rather wants you gone and others do the job. Freedom means to take responsibility for his words, but from the actions of the affected following in return. Whereas your ideology with meaningless responsibility excludes the affected, they don’t even have to know they faced any “abuse”. Well, the concept of actual British law includes graduated responses.

        What you actually mean to deal with is actual abuse, beyond simple nuisances of life, proper bullying, wilful incitements to kill etc. Yes, that’s when everyone has to face legal consequences by criminal law first of all. Bullying injures personal rights. All this is quite different from a simple “someone needs a good smashing”- so called rape threat.

        1. It’s interesting that you think I’m arguing for illegalisation, given that my actual calls here are for a private company to moderate behaviour on its private servers – post-moderation, not pre-moderation, with no ‘stripping of freedom beforehand’. Given that you seem to be completely misreading what I’m suggesting, I’m not sure that any further discussion will be productive.

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