Ever since the advent of social media, the government has struggled with how to regulate it. Go too far one way, and it’s an attack on freedom of speech. Go the other, and it becomes an anonymous free-for-all, the malicious and the bored given free reign to wreak petty havoc on the denizens of Facebook and Twitter.
The balance is shifting, however. Following this week’s high profile attacks on Caroline Criado-Perez, who successfully campaigned for Jane Austen to appear on a new banknote, and Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy, the media and the government have sprung into action to condemn Twitter’s anti-harassment policies and bring those sending the abuse to justice. A petition calling for the site to review its abuse policy and add a ‘report’ button to tweets has 126, 975 signatures at the time of writing, and a number of big names have thrown their hat into the ring in support of the latest endeavour, #twittersilence.
From 12am today until 12am tomorrow, Twitter uses were encouraged to stop tweeting for the 24-hour period as a show of solidarity with the women who received abuse on the site. Championed by writer/journalist Caitlin Moran, #twittersilence spread quickly and was trending before the event began. Though the intent is strong, the action begs the question: is silence really the way forward?
Boycotting Twitter for the day through silence is passive protest, at best. I respect the people behind the movement, and the attention being brought to the issue of online abuse is undeniably useful, but ultimately, nothing is going to change by sitting back with good intentions. The most incessant trolls aren’t going to stop just because there were fewer users online for a day. Though definitely not as arbitrary as the ‘armchair activism’ behind last year’s laughably ineffectual Kony campaign, the people behind #twittersilence need to think about tackling the root of the problem. Making a statement is a great step forward, but there needs to be some momentum behind that step. Even Ms Criado-Perez, at the forefront of this debate on social media security, is against the idea:
She later tweeted that ‘I choose to remain on Twitter. I choose to #shoutback. And I choose not to stop even for a day’. Hers is a viewpoint that seems to be shared by a huge number of men and women across Twitter. Keeping silent, and taking the abuse and rape and death threats without a fight is basically giving those in the wrong a reason to continue. Being able to continue their tirades and promises of violence is arguably the best outcome they could have asked for.
Instead, attention should be focused on the way in which trolls are dealt with and finding a happy balance in regulating Twitter user policy. I don’t agree with the way the government is stepping in to enforce control on the operating methods of a company like Twitter, but the company does need to take a hard look at how it self-regulates and adjust accordingly to protect its wider network of users.
Like I said before, #twittersilence definitely isn’t without merit. Anything that Katie Hopkins disagrees with is worthwhile, and it’s a noble cause. It just isn’t the right cause for now.