As Britain waited for his 2013 budget, a tentative George Osborne joined Twitter, the social micro-blogging site. The Chancellor must have been prepared for some degree of abuse on his interactions page. But the torrents of invective that flooded the site in the hours following Osborne’s new profile raise a serious issue about expressions of contempt.
Yesterday Twitter turned seven. Since 2006, the outlet has challenged its users to post succinctly and effectively in 140 characters or less, a bastion of free speech for the modern mentality. The communicative approach represents an intuitive paradigm shift: we are a nation on the pulse. Short updates from prevalent social figures drove the popularity of twitter as an en vogue medium of expression.
Ye we are increasingly carried away by the kind of short, snappy and sometimes rash outbursts that - when they catch on - foster the creative qualities that can make Twitter's top trending topics so brilliant. On Wednesday, for example, if you were to click on the trends of either “budget” or “George Osborne” a stream of abuse and harassment would have popped up on your screen.
Paraphrasing George Osborne’s first ever tweet, one user posted “Today I’ll present a budget that shows what a complete and utter useless cunt I am”. Another bemused tweeter argued “shouldn’t you be fixing the economy instead of fucking about on twitter?” Some took it upon themselves to cram as many insults as is possible into 140 characters: “you’re a first class bellend, you overpaid, overeducated fox hunting twat.”
Of course Osborne is not the first person to feel the wrath of Twitter users. In fact, the phenomenon is becoming more mainstream. Olympians felt the force of trolls last summer, with Rebecca Adlington receiving tweets comparing her to a whale, and Tom Daley being subject to inconsiderate tweets about his deceased father.
Action should be considered, especially when we examine the number of high profile people deactivating accounts: from TV presenters Kirstie Allsopp and Helen Skelton to footballer Micah Richards and beyond, the impacts of twitter misuse are concerning. Perhaps these celebrities could provide part of the solution: with billions of followers, the likes of Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and One Direction could quite easily preach a better means of interacting on the Twitter platforms. Many of their followers are guilty of some abuse, whether it is sending threats to fellow fans, or mocking the artist’s contemporaries if their preferred singer doesn’t receive an award.
With the attacks happening at all levels – popular culture, political, racial, religious – is it time that Twitter invest in a scheme of censorship? When monitoring a site whose most defining feature is user interaction and integration, there's no easy answer. Twitter’s success is built off its ability to generate momentum on any topic at all.
While it might be impractical to impose a blanket ban on certain words or phrases, it is quite possible that Twitter could prevent certain terms becoming trendable, limiting the hashtag. The hashtag is a staple part in galvanizing a twitter movement and some of the more obscene trends get to the top in this way. #ReasonsToBeatUpYourWife and #fuckyouwashington are but two examples; another, #OnceYouGetMarriedYouCant, stems from our tendency to overshare (‘family friendly’ suggestions included: “sit on the toilet and clip your toenails wit the bathroom door open” and “keep those naked photos of your ex”).
Proactive approaches from Twitter developers may be the only means to tackle the problem of harassment. Despite the high-profile cases of breaking super-injunctions and jail sentences being served for mocking the adversities of our celebrities, users remain relatively unversed on the issue of acceptable Twitter actions. Crown Prosecution has issued a 14-page guide to social media prosecution and related laws, but there is still a tendency to believe that the blogosphere does not impact the physical world. Violent threats and campaigns of harassment are easily challenged in court.
In fact, French anti-racism firms may have got the ball rolling by holding Twitter itself to account. The French Jewish Student Union and the J’accuse organisation have demanded a fine of $50million to be paid for Twitter not having handed over details of users whose abusive comments broke French law. The tag, #UnBonJuif (A Good Jew), instigated a string of abusive anti-Semitic posts on the micro-blogging site last year. Stéphane Lilti, the anti-racism groups’ lawyer, told FRANCE 24 “The 38 million euros cited, which is [the equivalent of] 50 million US dollars, is designed to make them [Twitter] wake up to the fact that protecting the authors of racist tweets is not acceptable.” Without doubt, Twitter wields a great responsibility for sharing and directing thoughts and should be penalised if they don’t monitor and act responsibly.
Safeguarding however comes with a risk. Increased filters of trending material could cause a delay in news transmission, and augmented censorship runs the risk of Twitter losing its dynamism. It would undoubtedly ensure a drop in popularity, and then there would be nothing to censor anyway.
At seven, Twitter seems to have been struck by a similar issue to Facebook. Just as other social network sites became bloated with memes and trolls, so the ingenuity that attracted new people and new modes of expression online risks being usurped by a proliferation of direct and personal attacks. This is not a new problem, but after the headlines about inappropriate and illegal posts on Twitter in 2012, it’s a wonder that users still felt justified to abuse the Chancellor so virulently, no matter how he has impacted their lives.