Articles - 12th April 2019

How Twitter is Taking on Trolling And Free Speech

Words by Caroline Kelly

“Free speech is meaningless unless it tolerates the speech that we hate”

So said Henry Hyde, US politician, defender of Reagan, adulterer and hypocrite. Hyde died in 2007 but not before he witnessed the boom of the internet. Would he still have defended the right to free speech if he had spent more than twenty minutes on Twitter?

Of all the pockets of the internet, including Reddit, Twitter is the one place where the deliberately offended, the purposefully offensive, the kindest, the most hilarious and the greatest collection of hairy knuckled, bridge-dwelling halfwits dwell.

It’s a place like no other. At times it feels like a crowded marketplace with everyone jostling for position and to get the last word. Oh, the last word. We’ll literally do anything to provide that one pithy, cutting response that seals the deal and places on our head the crown of being the best tweet in the thread. Well done us.

While we might dip our toe into the politics and views of others, very often we try to surround ourselves with ‘people like us’. Often described as an echo chamber, we hear our own beliefs and values parroted back to us, creating safety and comradeship. Except when the trolling starts.

Look, we’re not all celebs and chances are that trolling is more of a spectator sport than anything we’ll have to face personally but the level of hatred and vitriol dished out by these anonymous grunters is, well, it’s breath-taking.

One example includes historian Mary Beard who famously became the target of trolls for the crime of being a clever woman with opinions. Yep. That’s it. After appearing on Question Time and disagreeing with an audience member she was subjected to the vilest of abuse online. Focusing on her age and her appearance the trolls ran riot. Threats of sexual violence and so on and so on. Beard, a Cambridge University Professor, was 57 at the time but refused to back down, taking the trolls on and famously writing one a job reference to help him move on with his life.

Who are these keyboard bullies? Who knows. Mary Beard’s job reference was for a student, she also received an apology from a married father of two who had been behind a bizarre, grotesque, sexualised picture of her. He also apologised. Delving into troll psyche is a job for the bravest of souls and there’s neither time nor space here to do so.

This leaves us then with two questions that need addressing: What are platforms like Twitter to do about posts that are more than just playground bullying and how does this impact on our freedom of speech?

Introducing the new TWTTR app. Still undergoing testing, this latest concept from those behind Twitter was unveiled at CES (Consumer Electronics Show) earlier this year. It promises to change how threads appear, making it easier to read responses and how you interact with individual tweets. In this case, instead of tapping on a heart or retweet button you’ll have to open the individual tweet to carry out those kinds of actions. Small but noticeable differences.

And it’s one element of these proposed new features that has caught the eye of tech fans out there: the ability to effectively and quickly silence replies. With just one click we’ll be able to hide any comments that we don’t want to see on our threads, silencing critics, dissenters and of course, the trolls. On the one hand this seems imminently sensible. It gives power back to the conversation starter, filters out all the nonsense and provides protection from those deliberately targeted by bullies but on the other hand: Donald Trump.

You just know that prolific Tweeters like Trump will use this feature to shut down legitimate discussion and then claim they’ve had the bigliest amount of support for this or that policy, e-ver.

Trump aside, it’s a legitimate point and one that the likes of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook struggle with year-on-year. If you read this article on how the press and social media platforms deal with inappropriate material, you’ll know how hard it is to tread that fine line between legitimate criticism and hate speech.

It seems that with this new app, Twitter is handing the reins over to us and asking users to become the censors of their own social media. Risky? Possibly, but imagine the Twitter Utopia where everyone agrees with each other and disappearing the hairy troll becomes as simple as a click of the button? Admit it, it sounds great. Except it’s not and only time is going to tell if TWTTR is a tool for good or plays straight into the hands of those who require censorship to allow their dangerous views to thrive.

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