Editorial: Online bullying is still abuse

Twitter has made it easier to express impulses that ought to stay unexpressed

Share
Related Topics

This newspaper loves Twitter and everything about it. It expands people's capacity to delight in the virtual company of others, to share wit, news, esoteric information and pictures of cats. And the same rules should apply to it as to any other form of human interaction. As Sally Bercow, wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons, recently discovered, Twitter is not exempt from the law of defamation. People should be careful making, spreading or drawing attention to damaging claims about others that may be untrue.

Twitter and its users are still learning, however, how to deal with threatening behaviour. This has been a problem since soon after Twitter took off four years ago. Last year, Frank Zimmerman was given a suspended sentence for emailing a death threat to Louise Mensch, the Conservative former MP; he had also harassed her on Twitter. In other extreme cases, the police and Twitter Inc have acted.

But recently the problem has become more pervasive. Caroline Criado-Perez is a journalist who campaigned for women's faces on banknotes to succeed Elizabeth Fry, the social reformer who is to be replaced by Winston Churchill on the £5 note. Last week her campaign secured its goal, as Mark Carney, the new Governor of the Bank of England, announced that Jane Austen would feature on the next £10 note. Ms Criado-Perez's triumph was ruined, however, by a wave of abusive messages she received on Twitter, including threats of violence and rape.

Anyone who has enjoyed success, or any small degree of fame, might be familiar with the envy and resentment that come with it. Such sentiments are unpleasant and reflect poorly on human nature, and in earlier times – that is, before 2009 – they would have largely failed to find expression. But Twitter, as well as democratising news and silly jokes, has made it easier to express impulses that ought to stay unexpressed.

Some people, mostly men, will say that this is the rough end of the tumble of free speech and, anyway, you can just block them. But there is a difference between verbal abuse and threats of violence, and a difference again between foolish outbursts in the heat of argument and sustained threats against women because they are women.

This is something to which neither the police nor Twitter, now that it is a large company responsible for a ubiquitous service, has yet adjusted. Mark Luckie, Twitter's manager of journalism and news, responded badly to demands for Twitter to do more about users who threaten violence by locking his Twitter account yesterday. The company should respond more constructively to the petition launched this weekend for it to put a "report abuse" button on every user's page.

This is a sensible suggestion: the website's current system for reporting violent threats is hard to find and to use. But the company ought to be doing more to help the police to trace and deter persistent offenders. Many of the Prime Minister's arguments about Google's responsibility to use its staff's computer skills to help deal with the problem of child sex abuse images also apply to Twitter and threats of violence. Google and Twitter have not caused these problems, but they have facilitated them, and they are therefore under an obligation.

Threatening behaviour on the internet is no different in principle from physical stalking, and Twitter and the police should take it just as seriously.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Regulatory / Compliance / Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: Exeter - An excellent opportunity for a Solici...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mary Christmas: the Bethlehem story is Mary's moment, when a poor peasant girl gives birth to the Son of God in a stable  

The appeal of the Virgin Mary: A supernatural hope at a time of scepticism

Peter Stanford
 

Letters: Why Cameron is wrong about EU child benefits

Independent Voices
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'