Don’t Blame Twitter for the Failings of the Law

Recently, it was reported that the daughter of Robin Williams has left Twitter, after receiving graphic tweets depicting his suicide. This event has led to pressure being placed on the platform to take stronger action against those engaging in abusive behaviour:

 ‘They have a moral responsibility to protect their users, but they simply don’t.’

– Austin Awareness charity campaigner Kevin Healey. (#)

In response, Twitter has issued a statement declaring that they will be re-considering their present policies.

‘We will not tolerate abuse of this nature on Twitter.’

– Del Harvey, Twitter Vice President of Trust and Safety. (#)

The issue of abusive users on social channels is nothing new, providing a constant source of easy headlines. Part of the reason for this is due to a quirk of circumstance. ‘Ordinary’ Twitter users that receive abusive mentions (public messages directed to them) are able to block the users in question, so that they no longer see any further messages in their notifications (#). Whilst there is clearly no way to prevent the initial messages, this is a quick and simple way to stem any future abuse from that user account.

The real problem comes when there are users who are in the public spotlight. Just as these people will be the recipient of many messages from fans and well-wishers, they will also inevitably receive abusive communications in higher numbers. At this stage, the blocking mechanism becomes ineffective due to the volume involved. Given the already elevated profile of these people, there is more of a story to be told. It becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s important to note that this is a very particular problem, and one that the average Twitter user will not encounter. That, of course, doesn’t mean that it’s something that should just be ignored.

Abusive messages sent to those in the public eye is far from a new phenomenon, pre-dating the existence of the Internet. Bags of letters from fans sent through the post would also be accompanied by hate mail and death threats.

In the UK, Section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1998 makes it an offence to send a ‘letter, electronic communication or article of any description’ containing a ‘message which is indecent or grossly offensive’, or ‘a threat’ to another person. (#) This covers not only abusive postal communications, but those sent over Twitter as well. There are similar protections enacted in different jurisdictions worldwide.

Given that this is the case, why do we place a greater burden of expectation on online service providers than we do on those who enforce the law?

The Royal Mail does not have the same technical abilities available to them as entities such as Twitter do, and therefore it manages to avoid coming under fire for acting as the carrier of abusive messages. However, the idea that responsibilities of the State should be shifted to private entities in this manner is troubling.

People will always use different methods of communication to send abusive messages. The Internet makes this easy to do so in a quick, and highly visible way. Given that these actions are illegal, then it is something that should be pursued by the arms of the law that are meant to protect its citizens. The responsibility of protecting society, mediating between individuals, or making determinations of fact should not be left to any private party – be that Facebook, Twitter, the Royal Mail, or your own ISP.

Of course, online platforms often do make determinations about the kind of community they wish to foster. Content that is completely legal to host (such as porn) is prohibited on many services. The question about how these policies are created and shaped is undoubtedly one that users should speak up about, and challenge where they disagree. It is completely right that Twitter users should express their discontent if the community which they are a part of is becoming something undesirable. However, if the issue here is really about the volume of abuse that individuals are engaged in communicating, and the resulting inability of the law to effectively deal with it, then let’s be honest about that. Ultimately, this is a societal and legal problem, not the responsibility of the Internet.