This week, the British media’s obsession with Twitter reached a new zenith. Unfortunately for the social network, however, this was no love in. Instead, after feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez drew attention to vicious slurs and threats made to her via the site at the end of last week, commentators have been up in arms, arguing whether Twitter is doing enough to prevent or punish this kind of abuse. The company’s response has been instructive for new media brands: what to do when you’re called upon to control a free for all?
The behaviour of Twitter spokespeople has been much criticised. During her initial revelations, Criado-Perez attempted to contact Twitter’s head of journalism and news Mark Luckie, whose response was to make his tweets private. Others have pointed out that Luckie was probably not the best point of first contact, but a savvy PR would have advised him to send her a gentle message pointing to the correct individual before locking his account.
Subsequently, Twitter pulled together a more substantial response. Not only have they promised to institute a ‘report abuse’ button – which will simplify the process of telling administrators about acceptable conduct – they also sent a spokesperson on to Newsnight, in the shape of ‘head of trust and safety’ Del Harvey. How the former will play out remains to be seen – there are strong arguments for and against the idea. Nonetheless, it was a sign of decisive action, something which is crucial in a crisis situation especially as other voices like that of Stella Creasy MP are added to the mix. Harvey, on the other hand, left much to be desired in her performance, coming across as insincere and being accused by Gavin Esler, the interviewer, of talking ‘corporate gibberish.’
Looking at the case in context, I wouldn’t be too quick to condemn Twitter. Another digital behemoth, Reddit, was called out for its facilitation of sexist and violent imagery last year, when Gawker Reporter Adrian Chen reported on the activities and identity of notorious troll Violentacrez. The organisation responded petulantly, arrogantly, and with little moral sense other than a few half-baked statements about freedom of speech. Twitter do appear to be taking the case seriously. That said one could question both their airy West Coast tone and their reported lack of concern over the complaints of less high profile users in the past.
I do, however, think there are lessons to be learned here. One important point is that the morality of the herd hasn’t changed wildly over the past few decades. Sitting in Silicon Valley or Tech City surrounded by hyperintelligent libertarians and unstoppable utopians, it might be easy to forget that most people’s priorities are pretty simple: comfort, security, freedom from confrontation. Secondly, there’s a lesson about multi-national communications. Del Harvey made the timeless mistake of forgetting the prevailing culture in the country she was speaking to. Despite our proud history of satire and vibrant media, us Brits aren’t nearly as in favour of unfettered free speech as our US counterparts.
Lastly, and perhaps most crucially, Twitter need to do more to avoid being perceived as silent mediators. While their policies on abuse are already relatively robust, they clearly aren’t doing enough to demonstrate this. Whether they like it or not, Twitter is now a brand with a personality, an organisation which – partly due to its recent spate of interesting executive appointments – is seen to have views separate from those expressed by its users. If it wants to start moving in media circles or working on major innovations, it needs to accept the responsibility that comes with that. From now on, responses to complaints must not only be swift, they must be vocal, morally justified and transparent.