Abuse on Twitter

Baby Twitter, 2006 era, was a simple site for sharing 140 character thoughts throughout the day with followers who wanted to know what you had for breakfast and what you thought of the finale of your favorite TV show. But that innocent site has gone through an evolution. As it gained new users who recognized it’s many capabilities as a social site, its potential for conflicts rose as well. The amount of harassment and abuse that circulates on Twitter has caused many to think Twitter would soon end as a social platform, as seen in the 2014 “Eulogy for Twitter” in The Atlantic. More recently an article by Umair Haque, “Why Twitter’s Dying,” claimed Twitter was losing users because of the amount of abuse that was allowed to occur on the “social” site. And yet Twitter reports around 316 million users as of June of 2015. This may be because the benefits outweigh the costs- Twitter still being an effective place for connection-or it may be because people have accepted the abuse as a regretful but unavoidable side-affect of online communication in this day and age, considering that U.S. law allows much of it under freedom of speech, and Twitter doesn’t exactly leap to the defense of wronged parties on the basis of ethics.

Twitter: Social or Abusive? photo credit: The Daring Librarian
Twitter: Social or Abusive?
photo credit: The Daring Librarian

Cyber Harassment and Digital Abuse

Discussions on Twitter cannot be properly carried considering the platform limits each response to 140 characters or less, a sentence or two at a time. But that’s a perfect size for a threat. The 2013 Gamergate controversy, initially about women in gaming journalism, grew into a thorny mass of threatening harassment aimed at the Twitter accounts of women reporters who criticized the gaming world for excluding women. According to Twitter’s policy on abuse, the platform does not intervene unless accounts are individually reported, and in cases of overwhelming hate, more than one person can report manually, the policy falls short. There is also an option to mute or block accounts, which is what Twitter primarily advises, rather than reporting. Which just means the hatred is silenced for one user, but still present to hate on other accounts. The U.S. Constitution also protects free speech to such an extent that threats must be “true threats” before legal action can be taken. Similar situations in the UK involving threats of an equal nature to US ones ended with prosecution because there is no stipulation of “true threats” in their law. Looking closely at the specifics of abuse, it is women who most often find themselves the targets of abuse online, and studies, such as one by the University of Maryland, have proven the regularity of this abuse. Yet there is little they can do but delete their accounts altogether, since abusive language within the confines of the law is allowed, despite it’s unethical nature.

Intellectual Property Stealing

Twitter is a public forum. Yet what many users may not realize is that every tweet that is not deleted is archived for historical and research purposes. An agreement between Twitter and the Library of Congress in 2010 transferred every tweet ever tweeted into Library of Congress databases. In 2013 there was “an archive of approximately 170 billion tweets and growing. The volume of tweets the Library receives each day has grown from 140 million beginning in February 2011 to nearly half a billion tweets each day as of October 2012.” That’s a legal case of Tweets kept for certain purposes. In other cases, intellectual property has been stolen, such as photographs, which in some cases didn’t end well for the thieves, but there are likely many more in which photos or artwork is taken without attribution. Similarly, a social experiment by popular Twitter account Jonny Sun, in which he tweeted a false but believable fact, proved just how often the text of popular tweets is stolen by other users.  At the same time he demonstrated the rapid spread of false information on Twitter. He defends his right to intellectual property by saying, “It doesn’t matter that it’s “just Twitter”—creative production is creative production is creative production.”

Considering the many ways Twitter is misused, it brings to question the role of Twitter, the company. Is it responsible for the way in which it’s service is used only to the extent that it operates within the law? Should it be considering the ethics of allowing harassment at the cost of many user’s mental wellbeing? While it appears as though Twitter users are rising in number every year, abuse becoming the norm, this may never be a true concern for Twitter.


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