Sunday, 26 January 2014

Twitter Panic!

In the last few days, Twitter has been in the news again.

Footbal pundit Stan Collymore of Talksport called for twitter to be more proactive in stopping abuse after he was trolled with a lot of particularly hateful and racist messages after he said he thought Luis Suarez had dived in Liverpool's game against Aston Villa. Collymore has been the victim of such abuse before, including when he revealed that he had suffered from depression. The Sun newspaper decided to capitalise on Collymore's campaign during the week by dredging up the story of the stormy relationship he had with Ulrika Johnson back in the 1990s. Where the truth lies in terms of what happened in their relationship and whether he did the things she accused him of, no-one really knows, but it succeeded in setting off another chain of angry tweets and then Collymore apparently deleting his account.

He re-activated his account the next day, and as you can see, he has plenty of followers, so it is no surprise that there are some unpleasant people amongst them.
The second Twitter-related story of the week, in a similar vein, was the court cases of two people who had launched a campaign of abuse against feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez. The two, both from the North-East, had independently sent tirades of abuse and threats to Caroline and to Labour MP, Stella Creasey and others because they were arguing for a female figure to appear on banknotes. Both got prison sentences for their behaviour, though it is pretty obvious in both cases that they are rather sad figures who would have been incapable of carrying out their threats.

In the third story, Sky Sports invited Olympic gymnast Beth Tweddle to come and do a live Q&A session via twitter. Unfortunately, once again many people took it as an opportunity to behave abusively, posting a series of nasty comments about her appearance and making obscene jokes at her expense.  Laura Bates from the Everyday Sexism project wrote an excellent blog about it and its wider implications.

In each case, Twitter was the vehicle through which abusive behaviour was carried and it is easy, as in Collymore's case, to get angry with that vehicle for letting it happen. The problem is that once something is created which allows instant responses, with no kind of gatekeeper to monitor those responses before they are published, it is very difficult to stop the abuse. I saw Piers Morgan tweet this:
Of course, he is right on one level, it shouldn't be any different, but on another level it is impossible to stop it in the way that you can stop it on TV and radio, where there are editors and technicians on the spot to pull the plug (or not let you on in the first place!). The only things that can be done in a medium like Twitter are retrospective- which means when people report abuse, the police then finding the perpetrator and bringing them to justice, which takes a long time. And which would be simply impossible to do to every abusive tweeter. All that can be done is make an example of some people and hope that this dissuades others.

But it doesn't look like it will. If you follow any controversial hashtag or celebrity, you'll find an awful lot of abuse. It seems that twitter gives some people who don't normally have much power in their lives the opportunity to feel powerful, particularly when speaking to someone famous, which broadcast media could rarely do. I think it will get a whole lot worse.

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