Twitter abuse: let’s debate what the police are doing

Police, Brierley Hill, cc-by-sa West Midlands PoliceRape threats are vile. They are also illegal. Harassment is also an offence. The recent spate of such threats against Caroline Criado-Perez resulted in a call for a Twitter ‘abuse’ button.

Now that somebody has been arrested for threatening Caroline Criado-Perez, the debate should shift to where it should have started. How should the police react to complaints of online harassment and threats of violence?

From a campaigning standpoint, focusing on Twitter seems to make sense. Twitter have a customer base and reputation they need to protect. Rape threats are unacceptable, and Twitter will be under immense pressure to take action. Inaction looks like protecting the bottom line. People will understand that campaigning can have an effect in raising the issue of online threats and abuse. Labour have joined in with Yvette Cooper accusing Twitter’s response of being ‘inadequate‘.

Several campaigners speaking in favour of a new ‘abuse button’ said they had focused on Twitter because the police had failed them.

Kate Smurthwaite said that she had on some occasions approached the police, who advised her to ignore the behaviour, or come back if she had any information about who it was. Caroline Criado-Perez also reported that she had complained to the police, but did not think they would act. Hence the focus on Twitter.

It is a common complaint I have heard even from MPs who have suffered online abuse.

Their complaints to the police were about criminal acts, beyond the point where free speech is at issue. The actions that Twitter can take are limited, and truly, ‘inadequate’. Twitter could at best delete an account of an abuser, leaving them unpunished and able to set up a new account and carry on abusing. They might pass information to the police: but this could easily lack context and would be prone to errors of judgement.

Depending on the volume of complaints, abuse buttons would use automated sifting techniques. Thus they could be prone to abuse, or at the very least, mistakes. This may not mean that they are irrelevant, but they may not be as useful as is hoped.

We should worry if we make companies the main source of ‘redress’ for lawbreaking. From copyright through to libel, they are often badly placed to make fair judgements. Legal risk carries greatest weight rather than justice for someone complaining or complained about when a company takes an action. Companies making judgements can be a kind of privatisation of law enforcement that removes pressure on the police to deal with online offences.

After all, if a company deals with the problem statements, why shouldn’t the police assume the problem has been solved and deal with something “more serious”?

There is a parallel between the proposals Cameron pushed last week, trying to blame search engines for inaction on paedophilia, and ISPs for failing parents. Even if companies can take some steps (and as difficult and complicated though that may be) the most important initiatives are in the hands of the state. For child abuse, policing is preferable to giving up and asking companies to take steps to obscure access to content, whether by search or ‘web blocking’. In the case of children avoiding pornography, effective education and discussion are much more critical than whether ISPs sign up to “nudge censorship“. 

In the case of victims of harassment, the police need to investigate, arrest and prosecute offenders. No doubt, after a few cases, people would start to avoid crossing a line. Just as importantly, it could create confidence among the victims that their complaint might be dealt with sympathetically by the police.

So far, incidents do seem to be resolved when the police have them drawn to their attention though mass media and online campaigning. This is not acceptable, however, if equally threatening situations are not taken seriously, purely because of a lack of public attention.

Once Twitter have provided better reporting tools, campaigners should focus back on the police, rather than starting from a point of view where they regard them as a lost cause.