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Blocking accounts isn't enough - Twitter needs a button to allow users to report online hate

My research into extremism and the far right has often got me a wave of anti-Muslim hate messages - unless we report abuse it allows hate culture to permeate wider spheres of society

This weekend a number of polls were being conducted regarding the social networking site Twitter adding a button so that users could flag up aggressive and intimidating behaviour. 

The petition says: “Abuse on Twitter is common; sadly too common. And it frequently goes ignored. We need Twitter to recognise that its current reporting system is below required standards.”  

With the signatures currently over 60,000 (at the time of writing) I felt a moral and personal obligation to add my name to the list of people in support of this initiative.  Under the box ‘why is this important to you’? I spent at least one hour scribbling down reasons why for me this petition needed to be supported.  

For example, the recent Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks) a non-profit organisation which aims to show the scale of anti-Muslim hate crimes found that most anti-Muslim hate crimes occurred online (74%).  These facts are not isolated as the Association of Chief Police Officers revealed a similar worrying trend that has seen over 136 complaints made of anti-Muslim incidents online since the death of Lee Rigby. 

I have witnessed this type of online anti-Muslim hate first hand.   My research into extremism and the far right has often got me a wave of anti-Muslim hate messages. Normally, I tend to ignore them but I have often found myself reading them and feeling a strong sense that multi-million pound organisations such a Twitter really need to do more to help people report such crimes.   One method I have used is of course simply blocking people which is fine to a degree but does not help the police charge and arrest people for such crimes.   

Indeed, the Labour MP Ms Creasy has argued that abusive comments on Twitter amount to ‘a hate crime’ because if such incidents had taken place on a street then ‘the police would act.’  Twitter UK’s General Manager, Tony Wang told his 14,627 followers on Twitter that they would ‘suspend accounts’ which are reported to them and are in breach of ‘our rules’.

Caroline Criado-Perez, who campaigned to keep women on banknotes, has been targeted repeatedly with rape threats on Twitter.  In a letter to Twitter which is posted on the petition webpage she claims Twitter's manager of journalism and news was told about her claims but said he ‘did not respond and locked his tweets to become private.’

Scotland Yard has now confirmed a 21-year-old man has been arrested, and Twitter says it plans to introduce a “report abuse” button.

It came as no surprise to me as an academic researching over the last 10 years the impact of online hate incidents when earlier in the year Salma Yaqoob, the former Respect Party Leader tweeted comments to her followers made after BBC Question time saying that:  “Apart from this threat to cut my throat by #EDL supporter (!) overwhelmed by warm response to what I said on #bbcqt.’’

I have always made the case that any online hate incidents like this should be reported to the police because unless we report them it continues to allow the ‘thuggish’ type of online trolling and hate culture to permeate wider spheres of society.  I now would go a step further and argue that a Twitter button flagging up such material deemed to be offensive would also help.

These types of malicious comments via social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook are against the law and are linked to offences relating to religious hatred and inciting racial hatred.  Indeed, Liam Stacy who posted a number of racist remarks about Fabrice Muamba, which included the comments: ‘LOL **** Muamba. He’s Dead!!! haha’ was convicted of racial hatred on Twitter after people reported his comments to the police.

At the moment those who use online hate to disguise themselves in a cloak of anonymity remain at large because they understand that unless they are reported they can remain anonymous.  These abusive and threatening comments made online against people like Salma Yaqoob and others need to be tackled by organisations such as Twitter.  And if Twitter remains under the illusion that such comments are a part of free speech than perhaps they should give evidence before a Select Committee explaining why?