30 July 2013

Reporting abuse on Twitter and owning your words

I guess Jane Austen gets some fellas all rapey.

At least that's what Caroline Criado-Perez learned when she led an online campaign to put Austen's likeness on the back of a 10-pound banknote in the UK.  Her successful online petition to put Austen on the note got her more than 50,000 signatures - and about 50 rape threats an hour via Twitter for two days.  One man has been arrested so far.  It's as if some guys took a look at the countless stories in the Everyday Sexism project and decided to prove it could always be worse.

As angry as Ms. Criado-Perez is at the men who sent threats, she was even more upset with Twitter - because the social network's "report abuse" function is cumbersome and the overwhelming volume of harassment basically forced her off the platform.   So Twitter is responding by adding a "report abuse" button on all its platforms (the iPhone client already has this feature).

Of course, as the Daily Dot points out in this excellent piece, this idea has pros and cons. Trolls already use this feature on other social networks to their advantage, inundating their targets with hundreds of false reports. Trolls who see their accounts blocked simply create new ones. Twitter will quickly find itself inundated with requests to review thousands of tweets in dozens of languages every day.

Ultimately I think we will all be hurt by this. We are so caught up in the information age of the 21st Century that we've forgotten what Daniel Webster said in 1847: "Liberty exists in proportion to wholesome restraint."

First, we will likely see another attempt to hold these chuckleheads accountable by outing them - like what Adrian Chen did to "violentacrez" or the Predditors idea or the occasional "racists on Twitter" piece at Jezebel. I'm waiting for someone to publicize an outing and shaming site with users on LinkedIn, where it will probably have the greatest effect. Imagine being a recruiter with this kind of resource - suddenly able to cross-reference anyone who applies for an opening with the creepy photos he took or the sexist rants he launched on Facebook or Twitter.  I already ask a question to every person I interview for a job at my company - "is there anything on any of your social media profiles that you wouldn't want a client to see?" (I don't ask for passwords or anything like that.) This may become part of a standard background check.

Of course, there will be another backlash to this.  Some will say, rightfully or not, "it wasn't me."  Worse, we will again see the DDoS attacks and other hacks that can bring down the sites of entire companies - like what happened to SendGrid, the company that used to employ Adria Richards until she tweeted a picture of two guys at a professional conference who were being less than professional back in March. One of those guys lost his job, and the men's rights hacker collective demanded an eye for an eye.  Richards may be seeking legal recourse with the company, but I haven't seen her say anything online since.

Ultimately, we will lose more of what's left of our online privacy.  We already (often unwittingly) surrender our location, political affiliation, shopping preferences, religious beliefs, financial information, and even our health history to any number of companies.   It's not that hard to find even more information, even if you don't use your real name online - just as Jezebel did.   More people will learn how to employ these tactics, leading to more "outings" over more perceived transgressions.

There is, of course, a possible way out.  I always think of Liz Gumbinner when I mention it, though Kristen Chase, Julie Marsh and Susan Getgood deserve credit as well.

Own your words.

That's the mantra of the project they started years ago called Blog With Integrity.  I suppose it's the online equivalent of "I'm David Wescott and I approve this message."

The next time you see someone making a threat or an overtly sexist or racist remark online - even if it's not directed toward you - just ask them to share their real name and where you might follow up on the discussion.  Ask them if it's so important to rape someone would they share who they really are. Maybe share something about themselves so we can understand their perspective, like where they go to school or where they work or live. Ask them to have the courage of their convictions.  Ask them if they're willing to have a civil discussion in an open forum with people who may or may not think the way they do. If their ideas are valid and reasoned, perhaps they could enlighten the rest of us.

Just ask them, and see what they say.  After all, everyone knows what Caroline Criado-Perez thinks, and she's willing to put her reputation on the line for her ideas. Do her critics hold themselves to that standard?

Perhaps I'm being naive.  I'd love to know what others think.

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