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Laura’s Word 8 August 2013



Twitter's masterclass in how not to handle a social media crisis

Laura’s Word 8 August 2013

It’s not been a great couple of weeks for Twitter. Bad behaviour, trolling and trolloping are hardly new phenomena online, but the recent flurry of rape threats and bomb threats sent to high profile female campaigners, journalists and politicians has brought the underbelly of the Internet into the limelight. 

Twitter wasn’t exactly speedy to respond to the unfurling drama. The whole affair was sparked off on July 24th when feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez was spammed with hundreds of rape threats, at one point totalling one per minute. It took Twitter a couple of days to respond and agree to make it easier to report abuse – though it has to be said that frank and personal apologies from the UK Twitter boss Tony Wang were refreshingly free of weasel words and excuses.


I suppose one could ask, what else could Twitter have done in the circumstances? They’ve agreed to add an abusive behaviour clause to their rules and add a ‘report abuse’ button – and how could they have foreseen such a media firestorm erupting? But that’s the thing with social media strategy – if your brand has an online presence you’ve got to know how you’re going to respond. There are plenty of brands which has got it disastrously wrong with how they’ve handled social media during a scandal, and compared with these the Twitter affair isn’t quite an ‘epic fail’. But the strong impression is that they were caught on the back foot. When you’re a social media platform rather than, say, a supermarket with freezers full of horsemeat burgers, there’s really no excuse for not having a slick and frequently-revised social media crisis response plan. That’s kind of basic stuff, right?

And as for failing to predict that this or something similar was bound to happen sooner or later… really? People being horrible to other people online isn’t new. And neither is the personal, vindictive and threatening nature of that abuse. According to the NSPCC, 38 per cent of young people in the UK have been affected by cyber bullying and, in 2012, Childline reported that their services had seen a 7 per cent increase in the amount of cyber bullying-related counselling carried out. There have been several suicides among young people as a result of cyber bullying too. (Somesuch & Co directors Institute For Eyes recently created a film for Tomorrow's People campaigning against cyber bullying - definitely worth checking out.)

And it’s not just vulnerable young people on the receiving end of threats – for many bloggers and activists of all political persuasions dealing with this sort of abuse is part of the daily grind. As a particularly headline-friendly social platform, a favourite of journalists in search of ‘celeb Twitter-spat’ stories, was it such a stretch to imagine that one day they might have to deal with some kind of media storm? Or did the issue only really enter their radar when it was famous people who worked at newspapers and on TV who were the ones receiving the threats?


And then there's the fact that these attacks have been against women, though the question of online misogyny is a whole other rant...

The resulting debate has pitted those who want to curb online abuse and bullying into direct opposition against others who fear the systematic dismantling of online freedom. Without the shield of anonymity, could the Arab Spring have happened? Or does online anonymity give rise to the deindividuation described in Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment? I’m not sure that the two have to be diametrically opposite stances, though they have been positioned as such in the media. 

For now, the guiding principle for those unsure of how to behave online has got to be don’t do anything you wouldn’t do in person – a position outlined brilliantly by Hadley Freeman (who was also subject to a bomb threat last week) in her Guardian column ‘How to Use the Internet Without Being a Total Loser’. Ultimately the 'real world’ and ‘digital world’ are no longer separate entities, if they ever were.  

When it comes to the wider debate around online freedom of speech more generally, the idea of pre-modded or heavily scrutinised social media gives me the heebie-jeebies.  For one thing there isn’t enough manpower on the planet to keep up with that, and parsing software has the subtlety of a sledgehammer. What’s more the absence of moderate voices in mainstream media debates does make me worry that the issue could be hijacked by those who have other motives for wishing to exercise tighter control online. It’s a tricky area and a debate that’s been a long time coming. What are the solutions? I don’t know, but we’re a creative-enough species to come up with a way of protecting both freedom of speech and freedom from intimidation. Aren’t we?





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LBB Editorial, Wed, 07 Aug 2013 16:00:15 GMT