Sunday 16 June 2019

Colette Browne: Don't give trolls satisfaction of reacting to their online venom

A Twitter storm is raging about the ability of cretins to post their hate-filled bile online with impunity, but there is no quick fix for this kind of abuse.

Journalist Caroline Criado Perez received a stream of disgusting tweets, including rape threats, for the crime of successfully campaigning to have a woman, Jane Austen, feature on a new UK bank note. Instead of ignoring this vile misogyny, she decided to respond, calling out Twitter in the process for making personal threats difficult to report.

While Twitter has an option to report individual tweets for spam, only its iPhone app contains an option to "report tweet". Those using other platforms have to search for a form and complete it. Most don't bother, and simply block offensive tweeters to prevent future contact.

It's not just vocal feminists who are subject to this kind of abuse.

A developer for computer game 'Call of Duty', David Vonderhaar, received death threats over the weekend from irate gamers upset at a minor modification to the weapons players can use.

Clearly, online abuse is a problem. The question is, how should it be tackled? Some feel that these kinds of tweets should be publicised, to draw attention to the issue, while others think that the oxygen of publicity only encourages keyboard warriors to step up their attacks.

In fairy tales, trolls hide under bridges, jumping out at unsuspecting travellers to attack them. The same is true on the internet.

Trolls invariably have anonymous accounts, very few followers and lurk in the shadows, tweeting only to try to intimidate and get a reaction. Don't give them the satisfaction.

Twitter recently marked 200 million active users who send a staggering 400 million tweets a day. The vast majority of these are innocuous. Some are interesting and elucidating. Unfortunately, Twitter cannot compel its users to take an IQ test before signing up and it is impossible to police every single tweet that is sent.

This does not absolve the company from endeavouring to make its platform a safe place for members, and implementing an effective reporting system, but goes some way to explaining why reported abuse is not immediately acted upon.

A system in which accounts were instantly closed down once abuse was alleged is too draconian a solution.

Oftentimes, high-profile people, loathe to have their opinions challenged, can incorrectly label any combative tweets they receive abuse in order to stifle debate.

Some who loudly complain about abuse can also be guilty of engaging in juvenile behaviour themselves.

Earlier this year, Labour Senator Jimmy Harte announced he was leaving Twitter because of the "cyber cowards" who sent him abusive messages. While no one is questioning the bona fides of his statement, the same senator had previously sent questionable tweets he later deleted and apologised for.

"With a face like yours, I wouldn't advertise your pict[ure]" and "another pseudo concerned git . . . Twitter is the limit of your intellect" being examples of tweets that disappeared from his account.

Elsewhere, for those messages that cross the line from personal abuse to threats of a criminal nature, it is gardai, not Twitter, who should be investigating – with social media companies assisting investigations.

Happily, Ms Criado Perez tweeted last night that an arrest had been made over the threats she received.

While Twitter provides an instant delivery mechanism for vitriol, it should be remembered that some trolls prefer more traditional routes.

Last week, I got a letter from a 70-year-old grandmother who took exception to the fact that I'm not grinning like an idiot in my byline picture and wrote to tell me I'm a dour bitch.

Unpleasant people, spewing invective and venom, will always exist and will use myriad communication tools to propagate their message.

Personally, I prefer not to take the rantings of deranged windbags too seriously and instead focus on the many interesting and engaging interactions I have online.

Irish Independent

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