Insights into litigation, sports law, media and legal culture

Don’t blame Twitter for the Trolls

This piece concerns the aftermath of an Australian celebrity’s tragic premature death early in 2014.  Charlotte Dawson was renowned for tackling Twitter trolls head on.  After she died, commentators sought to extract lessons intended to apply to all social media users. However, much of that commentary has been superficial at best, and misleading at worst. In fact, the terms of use of social media sites, such as Twitter, offer the best guidance about how to avoid inappropriate contact from third party accounts.

After Charlotte Dawson’s death, we were asked to extract lessons from her life intended to apply to all social media users.  Ms Dawson was renowned for tackling Twitter hecklers, and Twitter, head on.  On 31 January 2014, she retweeted the offending text from one “suicide encouraging account” (her words), lambasted Twitter for taking five days to shut it down, and informed her followers when “the troll bit the dust“.

Unfortunately, many of these “lessons” offered by commentators have been superficial at best and misconceived at worst.

In one Opinion piece “Haters Ate Charlotte Dawson Alive” (The Age, Rosemary McLeod, Feb 27, 2014), the author informed us not to engage in chat rooms and Twitter at all, because “[t]hat way lies madness“. As one of an estimated two million Australian users of Twitter (according to a study by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industry and Innovation released 1 January 2014), all I can say to this is: Thanks for the constructive help. Not.

The CEO of Beyond Blue also created headlines following Ms Dawson’s death for criticising Twitter for failing to sign up to the federal government complaints handling scheme in Australia, without explaining either the nature of the scheme or whether Twitter’s red ink could help.

In fact, the 2013 Cooperative Arrangement for Complaints Handling on Social Networking Sites is little more than a high level government paper seeking greater collaboration between the federal government and social networking sites.  It calls for all the things Twitter already has in place, such as an acceptable use policy, mechanisms to facilitate reporting of inappropriate behaviour, a process for handling complaints, and guidance intended to help users navigate the site safely. Almost the only thing Twitter has failed to do is agree to meet biannually with government officials.

Twitter is on the record for acknowledging the tension between free speech (which it trumpets) and social media trolls (which it abhors). As Dick Costolo, the CEO of Twitter, told The Brookings Institution on 26 June 2013, advertisers need to be comfortable, and this requires an environment where self-expression is safe.  Twitter, therefore, is commercially motivated to fix this issue up, even if it may be less committed to gabfests with Australian government officials.

The terms of use of social media sites offer the best guidance about how to avoid inappropriate contact from third party accounts.

What are terms of use? Signing up to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or GooglePlus involves entering a contract, and the terms of use (located on each site’s home page) explain the rules.

For instance, Twitter states upfront that it does not screen tweets, or remove them unless a violation has been reported. Twitter also permits “inflammatory” speech, although messages cannot be abusive, threatening or consist of ‘one-sided behaviour’.

Charlotte Dawson was therefore correct when she tweeted on 31 January that “Twitter does nothing to prevent this content. Nothing.

However, in the same way it would be unwise to blame the manufacturer when you ‘had a go’ assembling a bookcase without reading the instructions, so too, why should social networking sites be blamed for breaking promises never made in the first place?

Twitter is also explicit that it permits impersonation accounts (for fan, parody and comedy purposes).  Users concerned that this might encourage uninhibited behaviour from social media trolls could consider signing up to Facebook instead. Facebook considers its ‘real name culture’ as a significant advantage in limiting inappropriate behaviour (per its self-report under the 2013 Cooperative Arrangement).

Twitter, like almost all social media platforms, has procedures enabling users to block accounts and report inappropriate behaviour.

Further, Twitter (like many others) recommends in its online abuse guidelines not to respond to trolls because, without fuel, they usually lose interest. Charlotte Dawson preferred, however, to adopt a more combative style.

Separate from social networking sites’ terms of use, common sense can help mitigate the risk of becoming victim to social media trolls. Remember the old dinner party rule? It is true that if we avoided discussing sex, religion or politics, Twitter would have a few less million users in Australia.  But provocative comments can still be made nicely, leading to stimulating and respectful debate. So, if one’s comments are of the shock jock, politically incorrect variety, one can predict correspondingly aggressive responses in return.

Tributes to Charlotte Dawson have all described her as a person of strong opinions. Indeed, it is not uncommon for media talent to choose to avoid the advice of experts when dealing with social media trolls. However, for the average social media user, a combination of due diligence and self determination can help avoid the perils of the social media battleground.

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