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Monday, July 29, 2013 

The Twitter hate machine.

I've come to the conclusion that Twitter is the new arsehole of the internet.  There have been many sites that have combined both the best and the worst of the internet previously, but for the most part the media ignored them.  Twitter you can't ignore: there is almost always one story on the Graun's front page about something that's happened on there, regardless of importance, precisely because it's been so adopted by the media, even more so than Facebook has.  These self-same people are in the main the ones that are so shocked that, horror of horrors, there are some really rather nasty people on the internet who enjoy making empty threats against those in the public eye.  Trolling goes back to the earliest days of BBSes; it's only really moved on in that some people are now so confident they troll or flame using their real names.

Stewart Lee couldn't have been more right when he described Twitter as "a government surveillance operation run by gullible volunteers, a Stasi for the Angry Birds generation".  Twitter both monitors and reports, and if you're one of those caught up in a periodic furore when it's decided someone completely lovely has been unfairly traduced, then watch out.  Enter Caroline Criado-Perez, who just so happens to be a freelance hack.  Following her campaign to get true feminist icon Jane Austen on the £10 note, she was subjected to some pretty par for the course abuse on Twitter.  Regardless of who you are, if you become even briefly notable, you will get flamed and trolled, however unwarranted such treatment is.  It's how the internet has always worked.  Where once we just swore at the TV, now some people swear in public via Twitter.  It isn't pleasant, but a lot of people have found there's little to do other than put up with it.  Hell, just a fraction of the criticism and abuse Lee has received makes up part of his last show, Carpet Remnant World.  Turn it to your advantage; ignore it; block people; let them get on with it; or, and this is a really scary one, try and do without the stupid thing.  You might just be able to.

Don't though claim this is a unique problem for women online, because it isn't.  Yes, it's true that women tend to be abused in a far more degrading and sexual way than men are, as just some of the tweets directed at Criado-Perez suggest.  This is mainly due to how, again surprise surprise, the vast majority of trolls are men (or often boys), and usually men whose lack of social skills has made them especially embittered towards women.  As another report currently on the Graun's front page makes clear however, men can and have received almost identical treatment.  Stan Collymore has previously highlighted the racist tweets that were being sent about Patrice Evra in the aftermath of the Suarez affair, while even the slightest digging will find people being unbelievably stupid on the site, such as those complaining about the royal baby being assigned a "gender role".

This is the problem with bringing the police into the equation.  Not only would they never be able to cope if every potentially lawbreaking tweet was reported to them, it raises fundamental questions about fairness and just how abuse in response to abuse should be treated.  As Anorak points out, plenty of people said that Emma West, the woman convicted of a racially aggravated public order offence on Croydon tram, should be raped or killed yet no one it seems was arrested for saying so.  Nor were those who called for Azhar Ahmed to be killed prosecuted, despite the fact that they went further than he did.  The courts have also so far failed to take into consideration the "disinhibition" effect the internet has when sentencing those who have been convicted of going beyond the limits of free speech online: the two Facebook "rioters" were jailed for a staggering four years, longer than many of those who actually did riot, while Matthew Woods was given a three-month sentence for posting a bad taste "joke" about April Jones.  Those who want certain kinds of trolling to be treated as criminal or online threats as equivalent to those made in public or over the phone have to be comfortable in the knowledge that similar punishments will inevitably follow.

The most obvious reason as to why Twitter doesn't have an easy report feature is that it would be endlessly abused.  Moreover, if you are being subjected to an orchestrated campaign of abuse as Criado-Perez says she was, then the police probably are the right people to turn to rather than Twitter itself.  There's trolling and flaming, and then there's bullying.  To repeat a point, there's also an off switch.  Until relatively recently we managed to go without constantly bombarding each other with messages of 140 characters or fewer.  Yes, some people on the internet probably hate you.  More importantly, some people in real life probably like you.

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