As you’ve probably heard, in the wake of actor Robin Williams’ death earlier this week, his daughter Zelda Williams was subjected to some particularly nasty messages on Twitter, causing her to close her account on the service rather than have to sort through hurtful, nasty statements from strangers. This is not good news for Twitter, which now has to answer to stockholders. And so the company is saying it’s looking into how to prevent this sort of thing from happening in the future, but there’s a bigger question — is that even possible?
“We will not tolerate abuse of this nature on Twitter,” said Del Harvey, Twitter’s vice president of trust and safety (yes, that’s a real job; one that probably pays better than yours or mine… combined). “We have suspended a number of accounts related to this issue for violating our rules and we are in the process of evaluating how we can further improve our policies to better handle tragic situations like this one.”
In terms of specifics, Harvey says, “This includes expanding our policies regarding self-harm and private information, and improving support for family members of deceased users.”
But what does any of that actually mean? And would any of it do anything to stop people from being horrible jerks on Twitter?
The answer to that second question, in my opinion, is a big “no.”
We live in a world where everyone old enough to hold onto an iPhone has the ability to anonymously indulge their most base instincts; to say things that would they would never say to someone’s face (or even in a forum where their real names were known); to hurt others for the sheer, possibly psychotic, joy of inflicting emotional pain.
The Internet is still in its adolescence, and a small but potent section of its users are behaving accordingly.
Unfortunately, this id-liberating freedom is something we all endure because the only way to restrict it is to restrict the things that also make the Internet function as a mass-communication tool.
The Anonymity Conundrum
The true double-edged sword of the Internet. For better and worse, it also allows you to write things that you might not have the freedom to write under your own name.
On the positive end of the spectrum, Internet anonymity offers an outlet for whistleblowers, dissidents, and victims to speak openly about the harm done to them or others without fear of retribution.
At the other end of that spectrum, anonymity is used as a shield from which cowards can hide while insulting, harassing, bullying, or outing people — often people they don’t know.
But is there any way to get rid of the latter while retaining and protecting the former?
You can’t require that all Twitter accounts use real names. It not only strips away the much-needed shield of anonymity from those who don’t abuse it, and it would have the effect of creating a privileged class among corporate or group accounts, where the actual human being Tweeting for Airline X or Cable Company Z remains anonymous but individuals must be named.
Twitter also couldn’t compromise and say “you can have a publicly anonymous user name, but we’ll need verifiable proof of ID.”
We live in a time when many people are — justifiably — already concerned about the large number of people who have their personal information. Being forced to go through a vetting process where you’re sharing that data with a company for no better reason than so you can blast out 140-character notes to the public, isn’t going to go over well.
Can A Better Reaction Be Proactive?
As things stand now, there is little that Twitter or its users can do to proactively avoid or block jerks. You can make your account private, limiting access to your feed to only approved members, but that doesn’t stop people from posting horrible things directed at you. At best, you can occasionally suss out a creep, troll, etc., early before it has become a nuisance and block, ignore or report that account.
But that’s the rub — it’s all reactive, just like most of the real world.
Much like we don’t arrest people for their potential to rob a bank, Twitter doesn’t suspend an account because it may someday unleash a gaggle of nastiness upon another user.
But in the real world, it’s awfully hard for a bank robber to rob a bank from jail, while a blocked Twitter user can just create a new account and get straight back to trolling, however nasty.
Twitter could — and maybe it is — tracking IP addresses of these repeat offenders, but it’s incredibly easy to fake this information and make an abusive user look like he or she is posting from somewhere they are not. If Twitter started blocking every IP address used by malicious accounts, it would inevitably end up blocking countless legitimate users whose IP addresses have been spoofed.
And with Twitter’s stock back to where it started when the company went public less than a year ago, it’s not going to be doing anything that would deflate its user base.
All Twitter can really do is respond to complaints in a more expedient manner and have a lower tolerance for nastiness. It will still be playing Whack-A-Mole with trolls, but one can always get better at playing Whack-A-Mole.
The Inevitability Of A-Holes
From the dawn of man, there have been insufferable, nasty people on this planet who take enjoy hurting others. The Internet has just given them a new tool for doing so.
So, just like a carpenter who really loves hammering nails, it’s inevitable that some Twitter users will continue hurling insults, Photoshopping people into obscene photos, and inexplicably thinking they are being clever.
Even if Twitter were to compel users to post their real names, or be personally accountable for violations, there are some people who just don’t care, who would be proud to be publicly called out for lacking a moral compass or any sense of empathy.
All we can do is learn how to minimize how much they bother us.