Tuesday, July 30, 2013

What are the police for? Twitter, abuse and reporting buttons

Like most UK women of any sense, my first reaction on reading some of the vicious threats of rape tweeted at the likes of Caroline Criado Perez and Stella Creasy was a heartfelt desire to track down the perpetrators myself and slowly castrate them. In the real world however, such an approach is nearly as impractical as the suggestion by Andy Trotter, head of social media for the police, that Twitter sort itself out using its magic technology powers, so the police can go back to more important stuff.

"We want social media companies to take steps to stop this happening. It's on their platforms this is occurring. They must accept responsibilty for what's happening on their platforms," said Trotter, chair of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) communications advisory group.
"They can't just set it up and walk away. We don't want to be in this arena. They are ingenious people, it can't be beyond their wit to stop these crimes, particularly those particularly serious allegations we have heard of over the weekend."

What exactly do we have police for, then, if not to investigate specific, repeated and documented crimes? Giving up on policing Twitter is no more defensible than abandoning  a town like, say, Walthamstow to the criminal elements.

For a senior policeman, Mr Trotter also seems sadly ignorant of the law. Even leaving aside the issue of threat of rape as a common law crime, which might involve some difficult issues of sufficiently proving intention (though not many), the Protection Against Harassment Act 1997, especially s 4(1) makes it very clear that two attempts to "cause another to fear that violence will be used against him [sic] " form a course of conduct which is a crime. In the Perez and Creasy cases there are apparently hundreds of such threatening tweets, many retweeted or screencapped.

 It is impossible to understand how police who went ahead with investigating cases which involved poorly framed jokes on Twitter can now say they do not have the money to take on genuine, vicious  and entirely humorless threats of rape. It seems much more likely that they fear  they do not have the technical ability to understand how to police the Net , or the resources, and are terrified, and also worried that having destroyed their credibility on the Net once (see below), things can only get worse. But in that case the remedy is to acquire expertise, not to retreat to a pre 1996 position of declaring the social Internet terra incognita where elephantine trolls roam.

The police want to offload the responsibility in its entirety  - and  the cost - on to Twitter.  But what exactly can Twitter do, even with the much demanded "Report Abuse" button, which they are now rolling out faster than planned? It can close accounts, but the trolls will simply open new ones, which can rarely be traced to their predecessor, as consumer Internet access uses different IP addresses every time, so IP blocking will merely remove some poor innocent from Twitter.

Blocking tweets with the word rape in them (or similar) will also block millions of innocent tweets, many by the very women embroiled in this debate. Blocking algorithms are not some magic Harry Potter like ward-spell, able to discern the evil in the hearts of men from 140 characters. Spam, for example, is relatively well blocked because it, and the bot accounts from which it comes, have certain very obvious  characteristics which can be easily made into automated filters: repeated words and URLs, accounts which have arisen very recently and have no or few followers. This is not true of the very wide range of abusive tweets. Machines don't understand natural language very well, let alone legalities like intention. And even counting abuse reports is likely to be used against the very women who are currently asking for it to to be brought in to protect them. And, finally, blocking threats of violence doesn't block those men, sometimes, actually carrying them out in real life. For this reason Twitter are right to still say that  :

"Twitter will investigate every report received, but if something has gone beyond the point of a personal conflict and has turned into credible threats, whether it be online or offline, you should contact your local authorities as they are in the best position to assess the threat and intervene or assist as necessary. "

FInally, the police are not the only ones at fault here. Over the last few days much of the media has seemed determined to pin the blame on Twitter alone - as an aside, could this be because Twitter is a danger to the failing industry that is broadsheet journalism? It is unclear - with the greatest respect to the women who have been through the mill in these cases - why they ever expected Twitter to be their main conduit to justice here . Twitter itself, even with its US free speech-oriented heritage,  has never asserted these tweets were protected or defensible speech. But for the reasons cited above it cannot do much. And it certainly cannot prosecute, caution, fine or jail.

So reports of real, serious online crimes, both in practice and on principle, should be made to the police who can investigate, prosecute and secure exemplar prosecutions - not left to private and erratic justice. The police have lost credibility on the Internet due to their bad handling of the Twitter joke trials and similar - now is their time to regain the trust of the online public, not to abandon them. Jane Fae sensibly suggests that Twitter implement the Report Abuse button to go straight to the police, as well as Twitter . This is a good idea, though Mr Trotter will not like it much.

But in the end the solution to all this is not the magic technology wand, nor, much, police crackdowns on the limitless swell of semi-anonymous trolls. It is to create a less misogynistic society where it does not occur to men, even a small minority of men, to try to silence uppity women by making vile threats to them, comforted and applauded by their bully boys supporters club . There are all kinds of issues here that need debated much more than a tweak to Twitter's reporting system: lad's mags with tits out, non reporting of rape, prevalence of  violent or objectified pornographic images of women (see last post!), education, the glass ceiling, the relativing silencing of women and girls in many public meetings, in schools, on TV, as presenters on serious media if not beautiful enough, even the portrayal of Parliament itself as necessarily full of braying, rude and ill mannered men. It's not an easy problem to start to address but waiting for the technology magic bullet is not helping anyone.

NOTE: I wrote here, as someone will no doubt remind me, that the police should be careful not to stifle free speech on social media by hasty prosecutions  using inappropriate laws which fail to correctly assess the norms of debate of the online world. There is no contradiction here. A tasteless but hasty one-off tweet to the world that (say) that British soldiers “should die and go to hell” is not hard to distinguish from a pattern of repeated specific and violent threats targeted at a particular woman. In the first the debate is about individual freedom of speech  and  norms as to w how we want discussion to be waged in public spaces, within a political context of discussion; in the second, the matter is of crime, violence, hate and fear, and in no way, in my view, having seen sample tweets re tweeted, about debate, or free speech. 

The recently released DPP's Social Media Guideliness recognise exactly this distinction and give clear instructions as to the prosecution of "credible threats of violence to the person or damage to property". .

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