This post will raise a question that I don’t know the answer to: if Twitter implements a ‘Report Abuse’ feature, will that decrease (or even increase) the chance that its abusive users in the UK will be arrested by the police?
First, some background. The Bank of England announced that the face of Elizabeth Fry is to be taken off the £5 note to be replaced with that of Winston Churchill. This prompted (to my mind, fully justified) worries that, since Fry is the only female (with the exception of the Queen) on the notes, we will be left with an all-male cast. This was followed by a campaign, led by Caroline Criado-Perez, demanding that a woman be depicted on at least one of the banknotes. The campaign was successful, and Jane Austen will be the new face of the £10 notes (or, more accurately, this was always the plan – the Bank just hadn’t announced it yet).
Then, as always seems to happen with these sorts of cases (but mind-boggling nonetheless), Criado-Perez received a barrage of hatred, primarily over Twitter, with frequent mentions of rape. This led to calls for a ‘report abuse’ button on Twitter, with a proposed boycott on the 4th of August.
My view is that implementing such a feature effectively would be very difficult indeed. Twitter should take action with a view to stopping as much online abuse as possible. Nevertheless, one can easily see how every single Justin Bieber tweet would be reported thousands of times (whenever I click a public figure’s tweet I often see a barrage of abuse in response to it). People getting into arguments would frequently resort to adding a ‘report abuse’ in addition to the standard ‘retweet-subtweet-block’ combo. Would they limit their definition of ‘abuse’ to threats of harm, or would any hateful bile count? If the latter, then I submit that many calling for the ‘report abuse’ feature would also end up on the wrong side of it.
All that aside, I think something should be done about the back-and-forth abuse on Twitter and other sites, and if a ‘report abuse’ button can be implemented effectively, then I can get behind the idea fully.
I’ve been critical of the UK’s disregard for free speech – a great example is the case of Liam Stacey. A student got drunk, was offensively racist one evening on Twitter, and ended up with a 56-day jail term, which is in flat opposition to the principle of free expression. In the case of Criado-Perez, a 21-year old has already been arrested (and perhaps more arrests will follow). This most recent arrest is a little hard to assess, as I haven’t yet seen what they tweeted. Perhaps it was a credible threat of harm, but the UK’s recent history with arrests for tweetcrime doesn’t fill me with confidence.
To relate this to the central question of this post – it seems at least possible to me that the UK acts as it does in part because there’s no other way of preventing such abuse. If this is the case, then it may also be true that Twitter employing effective measures to counter this abuse will lessen the need for the law to get involved. Of course, this shouldn’t be the case, as the law shouldn’t depend on Twitter’s feature set. Nevertheless, if Twitter were handling it well, there might be fewer reports to the police, and more reports to Twitter directly.
Does anyone have any opinions on this?