It's been an exceedingly ugly fortnight on Twitter. Following a successful campaign orchestrated by journalist and feminist Caroline Criado-Perez to have a woman reinstated on Bank of England banknotes, she has been subjected to a relentless campaign of harassment, with rape and death threats being received by Criado-Perez at a rate of nearly one per minute on July 24, the day it was confirmed that her campaign had been a success. After being the platform for sustained threats and abuse for almost two weeks, Twitter has finally begun to act.
London MP Stella Creasy and television presenter and historian Mary Beard are among those who, like Criado-Perez, have received misogynistic death and rape threats through the social messaging service. Creasy's apparent crime against mankind was to post updates to Twitter in support of Criado-Perez. Beard (a long-time victim of online abuse) was to join in with a one-day boycott of the service on Sunday (proposed by columnist Caitlin Moran, who has also been on the end of threats and abuse), but broke silence to report yet more threats.
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By July 30, two men in their 20s had been arrested in connection with harassment and malicious communication, but these arrests are only the tip of the iceberg. Hadley Freeman, India Knight, Grace Dent, Laura Penny and Catherine Mayer have also received threats via Twitter in recent days.
Twitter itself was slow to respond. After Criado-Perez contacted Twitter's Manager of Journalism and News, his remarkable response was to temporarily lock his own account so that his updates would only be seen by people already following him (and new followers would need his permission to see them). It took Twitter's UK General Manager Tony Wang a further week to apologize on Twitter, but in a post to Twitter's UK blog that same day (Saturday), Wang and Senior Director of Trust and Safety, Del Harvey, listed a number of measures intended to address the problem.
Perhaps most notable is that Twitter has introduced a "report tweet" button in the latest version of the official iOS app and on the mobile version of the website. The button should appear in the official Android app and on the main website during September. This would appear to be a direct response to an online petition with over 120,000 signatories which called for exactly this.
Also significant is an update to Twitter's rules, which state explicitly that threats of violence are not on. However, Twitter also rules out "targeted abuse or harassment" and specifically mentions that users sending abuse from multiple accounts, or which only send abusive tweets from their accounts, may be in particular danger of falling foul of moderation. This suggests that Twitter has been paying attention to some of the particular characteristics of the offending accounts.
What are the consequences of breaking the rules? "Your account may be suspended for Terms of Service violations if any of the above is true," begins a paragraph near the foot of the rules page.
Finally, the blog post announces that Twitter will work with the UK Safer Internet Centre to "expand our user resources on digital citizenship and staying safe online."
Twitter's response has prompted concerns over free speech, but really, all that is happening is that Twitter in the UK is making it harder for users to get away with breaking the law. Threats to kill are illegal under UK law, carrying a maximum prison sentence of 10 years under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. But you don't have to go that far to break the law in the UK. The Public Order Act 1986 makes it a finable offense to use "threatening, abusive or insulting" words, writing, signs or behavior within the hearing or sight of a person likely to feel harassed (whether or not they actually were). Doing so intentionally is a imprisonable offense, though the act must have caused "harassment, alarm or distress."
As I write this, Stella Creasy has just retweeted a bomb threat made against her on Twitter by someone with a random string of characters for a username. Clicking through to that user's tweets, it is clear similar threats were made to around 10 people, all women in the public eye, many of whom would self-identify as feminists. The account was suspended within minutes, suggesting that Twitter is, for now, taking abuse on its service seriously. Less clear is whether Twitter is relying on users to report criminal activity, or whether it has put procedures in place to do so itself.