Time to change Twitter, or #RIPTwitter?

One the main topics on Twitter the last day or so has been, well, Twitter itself. When the rumour came out that Twitter was – apparently within the next week or so – going to move to using an ‘algorithmic’ rather than chronological ‘timeline’, the reaction was pretty strong and direct. The hashtag #RIPTwitter trended worldwide.

Not for the first time, it looked as though Twitter had demonstrated that, to put it bluntly, it didn’t understand its own product, or its own customers. This has happened a number of times over the last year or two – particularly since the IPO – most recently with the change from ‘favourites’ to ‘likes’. This time, however, there is a difference. Twitter aren’t just changing labels – the favourites to likes change was essentially symbolic, hearts replacing stars, and though the symbolism was particularly poor, as it suggested a move to be more like Facebook, something anathema to many Twitter users, symbolism was all it was. This time the suggested move was much more than symbolic, it was messing with the very essence of Twitter.

What’s ‘good’ about Twitter for many people is its simplicity and directness – and the degree to which the users themselves control their experience of it. The timeline is part of that. You choose who you follow, and you get their tweets as they tweet them. Things aren’t chosen for you – either by humans or by algorithms – so Tweeters feel they have control. Moreover, there are a wide range of current uses for Twitter that depend directly on that chronological approach – these are just a few:

  1. The ‘live tweeting’ of current events as they happen – whether this be of conferences  or press events, or political or ‘news’ events. What happened in Ferguson could be followed better on Twitter than through any form of mainstream media – and it was the immediacy and timely nature of Twitter that made this so. A curated timeline, however good the algorithm, could not hope to capture that.
  2. Streams of tweets by an individual on the same subject are often in a key order – whether they’re marked as such (using the 1/n, 2/n etc approach) or not. If you read them out of order, the meaning changes often radically, particularly as Twitter is ideal for the use of humour, irony, sarcasm and similar forms of pithy wit. Any regular user of Twitter will have experienced their own tweets being taken out of context, or having to redirect people to previous tweets. That’s hard enough with a chronological timeline – with an algorithmically curated timeline it would be far worse, again, however good the algorithm.
  3. Conversations happen on twitter that also depend very much on the order of the tweets – and again, it’s hard enough to follow the often complex threads of long conversations without the interference of algorithmic curation. Some key parts of the conversation can be out of order, others omitted entirely because the algorithm doesn’t understand their significance in context. A good algorithm could reduce the level of this kind of problem – but it would have to be incredibly good and having no algorithm at all would still be better!
  4. Finding the originator of an idea depends a great deal on time – and algorithmic curation could exacerbate the already thorny problem of attribution. More ‘popular’ people are already credited with ideas of ‘lesser’ people – this would just make this even worse.

The idea of using algorithms is very attractive, but it’s underpinned by an illusion that algorithms are somehow ‘neutral’ or ‘fair’. This is what brings about the idea that Google is a neutral indexer of the internet and a guardian of free speech, but it really is an illusion. Algorithms are human creations and embed ideas and biases that those who create them may well not even be aware of. They can make existing power imbalances worse, as the assumptions that underpin those imbalances are built into the very thought processes that create the algorithms. Yes, people can compensate, but even that act of compensation can bring about further biases. Where the essence of the idea behind an algorithm is to make Twitter more money, then that bias itself will interfere with the process, consciously, subconsciously or otherwise.

I sympathise very much with Twitter here. They’re under huge pressure to make more money – and though I would like that pressure not to exist, it does. Twitter is a corporation, not a public utility. It has to find ways to make profits – and that does mean contemplating change. We, as Twitter users – in my case someone who really loves Twitter – need to be very careful not to resist change from a sense of nostalgia or a determination to hang on to what we are comfortable with – but in this case it really does matter.

Part of this may be resolved if, as has been hinted, the algorithmic timelines are ‘opt-in’ and the default timelines remain, well, time-lines. Twitter could even bite the bullet and realise that their other recent ‘change’, the introduction of ‘Moments’, was a mistake, and simply replace ‘Moments’ with an algorithmically curated timeline that people could choose to use, whilst keeping the default as the chronological timeline. I, however, am not holding my breath on that one. Though Twitter have been saying they’ll consider anything, they don’t seem to include admitting recent ideas have been mistaken among those things they consider.

There are other options they could contemplate – other ways to make money. They could, for example, create a paid for ‘Twitter Classic’ app that, for a small fee, gives you a ‘clean’ Twitter with a pure, chronological timeline, no promoted Tweets, no ‘moments’ and so on. Whilst the ‘paid for’ model for the net itself has largely been rejected, the idea that we can pay for apps on our phones and computers has been accepted. Indeed, paying for ‘ad-free’ versions of various services is both common and seemingly successful. If Twitter wants to go that way, I for one would pay for the app. I may be rare, however.  People can rarely be convinced to pay for something they used to get for nothing.  That’s Twitter’s challenge. I hope they find a way to meet it without destroying their own essence. If they go the way of algorithmic curation as default, it really could be #RIPTwitter.

#Establishment?

Two seemingly very different stories have been dominating the left-wing UK political scene on Twitter over the last week or two. The first is the remarkable success of the #CameronMustGo hashtag, the second the Trumpton UKIP saga. They’re very, very different things – and on the surface seem not to have very much in common – but there are strong connections between the two, connections that suggest some interesting things about how social media, and Twitter in particular, can work.

The #CameronMustGo hashtag is still trending (as I type this) after two weeks and more than a million tweets, in the face of a whole series of derogatory articles in the mainstream media (as I discussed here), and reactions from disdain to rage. To get a hashtag to trend isn’t easy at the best of times, and to get it to trend for this long is nothing short of remarkable – indeed, the disappointment last night when (seemingly briefly) the hashtag dropped off the trending list almost made me laugh, but had a serious point. Getting the hashtag to trend has given groups of people a sense of power – a sense that they can have at least some impact, albeit only in the virtual world of Twitter, when they otherwise feel so powerless in the face of a seemingly overwhelming establishment.

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The UKIP Trumpton phenomenon seems very different. The initial UKIP Trumpton account was a parody account, one of many such accounts on Twitter – I run a parody account myself, @KipperNick – but until a few days ago it had just a small following. It was funny, particularly for people of a certain generation (including myself) who grew up watching programmes like Trumpton, Camberwick Green and so forth – but it wasn’t earth-shattering, until it started to be attacked by UKIP MEP David Coburn for being ‘fake’. That started a twitter storm, one that has raged ever since. @Trumpton_UKIP now has 18.9 thousand followers, more than twice David Coburn’s number, and has spawned a whole range of related Trumpton accounts, as well as a wide range of attacks from UKIP supporters, some suggesting that it shouldn’t be allowed to use the word ‘UKIP’ in its name, others invoking (more than a touch dubiously) intellectual property law. The more the attacks come, the more the parody thrives – and the more attention it gets, from the mainstream press, and even from TV and radio.

So what’s the connection between the two, apart from being attacks on right wing politicians? Well, first of all, they both emerged from small, humble roots – the people behind the initial #CameronMustGo hashtag and the @Trumpton_UKIP account are ordinary Twitter users, not part of political parties or backed by the mainstream media. Both took root through the grassroots of twitter – yes, the #CameronMustGo hashtag was taken up by official Labour Party people, but the mainstay was (and remains) much more ordinary twitter users. Both thrive in the face of (at least partial) mainstream attacks – indeed, the attacks seem to make them stronger. Both use humour – even a brief look at the #CameronMustGo stream shows that a fair proportion of the tweets either are or use jokes as their basis, while the Trumpton accounts are based almost entirely on humour. And they’re funny. Very funny at times.

Both, too, seem to have caught the ‘establishment’ on the hop – and for all its protestations, UKIP is very much part of the establishment. Whether it’s UKIP or the Tories, the BBC or the mainstream press, the social media is something that they can’t quite get on top of. It’s not as controllable as they want it to be – and it challenges their control over the ‘message’. The Labour Party shouldn’t get complacent either – the wrath of Twitter is as likely to turn upon them as it has on the Tories and UKIP. If they try to use the people of Twitter as their political tools, they can expect a backlash. If there’s one thing #CameronMustGo and Trumpton has shown, it’s that it’s the people that count, not the parties. And long may that last.

 

 

Fear and loathing of social media…

There seems to have been a lot of negativity about social media in the last few weeks and months. It has a number of different facets and works in a number of different directions.

Command central for terrorists

One is the portrayal of the social media as evil and dangerous, full of paedophiles, terrorists and worse. We should be afraid of social media. The new head of GCHQ has called Google and Facebook ‘Command Central’ for terrorists such as the so-called Islamic State, something echoed in detail by the Parliament Intelligence and Security Committee’s apparent conclusion that Facebook were the only ones who could have (and didn’t) stop the murder of Lee Rigby. According to this mantra, we need to take control of the social media if the social media companies don’t take control themselves, and accept their ‘social responsibility’

The playground of irrelevant keyboard warriors

The second is the seemingly contradictory portrayal of the social media as pointless, puerile and distracting, reflective of nothing of substance and a great deal of stupidity and foolishness. Social media is something to be loathed. The reaction to the #CameronMustGo hashtag is perhaps the best example – and in particular complaints about the idea that this fact that the hashtag has now trended for upwards of a week (which for people unfamiliar with Twitter trends is something quite remarkable – in Twitter terms) deserves coverage in the mainstream media – and has received it. ‘Why,’ the argument goes, ‘should the real media pay any attention at all to the online witterings of a few dodgy lefty keyboard warriors? That’s not real news.’

So which is it? Is the social media a den of evil, command central for terrorists and something we should all be desperately afraid of – and need to police, to control, to censor? Or is it just the playground of geeks and nerds, lefty political wonks and the liberal media elite, to which we should pay no attention at all? Both? Neither?

A little more complicated….

Reality, as usual, is a little more complicated than that. Social media is in some ways new, in some ways old, in some ways crucially important, in others entirely irrelevant. It needs thought in order to understand, not just a few clichéd words and a bit of pigeon-holing. It’s reflective of ‘real’ life in some ways – and a place and space of its own in others. That, for many of those of us who spend a lot of time using social media, is actually what makes it worthwhile. There are things on here that matter – and there are things that don’t at all. There are ways in which the social media can challenge the ‘mainstream media’, and do jobs that the mainstream media either can’t or won’t do – the coverage of the Israeli incursions into Gaza earlier this year was one of those, opening eyes and then leading at least some of the mainstream media into a very different form of coverage of Palestine and the Palestinians than they had ever shown before. The same for the coverage of the reaction to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson – social media’s immediacy, the way that ordinary people could get their own experiences ‘out there’, provided something different, and seemed, at least in some ways, to change the way that the mainstream media (or at least some of it) covered the events. That matters.

At the same time, a lot of the other stuff on social media really is pretty pointless. Stories abound that have no basis in reality – or, worse, distort reality and distract from real coverage of real events. Some of the photos of the full and empty chambers of the Houses of Parliament currently circulating on Twitter fit into this category, as Isabel Hardman has revealed in the Spectator. At times, though, even these pictures do matter – or at least I think so – such as the ones I tweeted myself of the empty chamber during the DRIP debate. They mattered then because the chamber really was empty, and that was the only time that Parliament had to discuss that critical debate – there was no other chance to debate it, no committee stages, no public (or even private) hearings, just that debate. That was it.

At other times, Twitter is just stupid and irrelevant – or silly and fun, depending on your perspective. I use Twitter for important, work-related stuff, for political debate – but also for silly hashtag games. My tweet ‘The Hunt For Red Leicester’ in the #CheeseFilms hashtag games remains one of my favourites.

#CameronMustGo

Where, then, does #CameronMustGo fit in to this – and why do some people seem to absolutely loath it? Some have positively seethed when they tweet about how pointless and irrelevant it is, how ridiculous it is that other people are angry that the BBC isn’t giving it more coverage, how much of a distraction it is from ‘real’ news, how it doesn’t have any ‘real’ basis behind it and so on. Are they right?

For me, there’s a lot of truth in what the critics say in detail – but they miss the ‘bigger’ social media picture. Yes, there’s no ‘real’ basis for it – it wasn’t a particular event that triggered the tweets, just an idea to try to get it trending. It’s not one particular action of our Prime Minister that made people think it was time for him to go. It’s also not true that #CameronMustGo has any chance whatsoever of actually succeeding in making Cameron go anywhere – let alone forcing him out of office.

…but very, very few of those contributing to the hashtag would ever believe that it does. The ones that I know, at least, have very few illusions about what a hashtag can actually contribute, or what the point of it is. #CameronMustGo is something that allows people to vent their frustration at a government that they detest – and at a media that seems to ignore them. It was born out of anger with the mainstream media’s apparent obsession with Ed Miliband’s oddness and awkwardness – and their unwillingness to subject Cameron to similar levels of scrutiny. It was an opportunity to have fun too – and the hashtag is full of humorous as well as serious tweets.

That doesn’t mean that the hashtag needs or deserves attention by the mainstream media in terms other than its own: as a hashtag. As a hashtag, however, it does deserve attention. That is, if you’re studying or covering what’s happening on Twitter, it deserves attention – because Twitter trends rarely last long, and for #CameronMustGo to trend this long. The level of dissent, of attention, of focus necessary to keep this trending is impressive – in Twitter terms.

That’s not to be sneezed at – but neither is it earthshattering. It’s a bit of a Twitter phenomenon – but I doubt Cameron will be losing much sleep over it either. The main way that Twitter matters to politicians is that their own injudicious (or at least arguably injudicious) tweets can be deeply damaging to their careers, as Emily Thornberry found out. Twitter matters most to those on Twitter. It’s not really something to be either feared or loathed – particularly by those who don’t really understand it.

It is, however, those who don’t really understand social media who seem to display the most of that fear and loathing. They might do better to listen a little more to those who spend more time on the social media…..

 

UPDATE: 2 December 2014

As I write, two days after the initial post, #CameronMustGo is still trending – and the loathing of it seems to have reached new heights. One Tory MP has suggested witheringly that those behind it don’t understand economics, others that it’s no substitute for ‘real’ politics – while journalists continue to treat it largely with disdain. I can see why both politicians and journalists don’t like it – but at times there seems to be something close to fear in their reactions. It’s natural to be afraid of the unknown to some degree – and the problem seems to be that this really is unknown territory.

Journalists have embraced Twitter to a great degree – but there is still a tendency to look down on it because it’s not ‘real’ journalism. That’s true. It isn’t ‘real’ journalism – but that doesn’t mean that it’s somehow a ‘lesser’ thing. It’s just different. It performs different functions – mobilisation of groups who are otherwise unheard is just one of them. Anyone who followed the ‘IamSpartacus’ movement should see that – and journalists should be able to look beyond their own bubbles and see that too.

Most politicians haven’t embraced Twitter to the same extent – except to #TweetLikeAnMP – and they generally treat Twitter with either fear (as it may end their careers, Emily Thornberry-style) or as a PR tool (as they treat a great many things). That, too, is missing the point. Twitter is something quite different…

…and those behind the #CameronMustGo hashtag have realised that. They’re in unknown territory too, as no-one imagined the hashtag would trend this long. As I noted above, this still isn’t earth shattering, and it definitely won’t unseat Cameron – but neither is it intended to. It does what it does, and on its own terms – and it does it spectacularly well, in comparison to other similar attempts.

Facebook And Twitter – Handling Extremism And Disorder

After extensive consultation, FAT-HEAD has been amended to take into account its lack of clarity over costs (see 8) and the unfortunate limitation of extent (see 9).


 

Facebook And Twitter – Handling Extremism And Disorder Bill (‘FAT-HEAD’)

Contents:

  1. When this Act applies
  2. Facebook and Twitter
  3. Social and Moral Responsibility
  4. Code of conduct
  5. Extremism
  6. Disorder
  7. Acceptance of blame
  8. Costs
  9. Extent, commencement and short title

A

Bill

to

Make provision as to matters concerning the social and moral responsibility of Facebook and Twitter, to ensure that proper cooperation is made with the authorities in relation to morality, extremism and disorder.

BE IT ENACTED by the Queen’s most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:—

1. When this Act applies

This Act applies whenever an event of such significance, as determined by the Secretary of State, requires it to. Events include but are not restricted to acts of extremism, of disorder and of embarrassment to the Secretary of State, the government, the intelligence and security services and the police, or any other event deemed appropriate by the Secretary of State.

2. Facebook and Twitter

The powers conferred through this Act apply to Facebook, Twitter and any other online services, systems, or their equivalents, successors or alternatives (‘the services’) as determined by the Secretary of State.

3. Social and moral responsibility

The services shall recognise that they have a social and moral responsibility above and beyond any requirements hitherto required by the law. The requirements that constitute this social and moral responsibility shall be determined by the Secretary of State, in consultation with the editors of the Sun and the Daily Mail.

4. Code of Conduct

The Secretary of State shall prepare a Code of Conduct to cover the actions of the services, in accordance with the social and moral responsibility as set out in section 1. This code of conduct shall cover extremism, disorder, obscenity, dissent and other factors as determined by the Secretary of State.

5. Extremism

i)  The services shall monitor the activities of all those who use their services for evidence of extremism, including but not limited to reading all their posts, messages and other communications, analysing all photographs, monitoring all location information, all music listened to and all areas of the internet linked to.

ii)  The services shall provide real-time access to all of their servers and all user information to the security services, the police and any others authorised by the Secretary of State, including the provision of tools to enable that access.

iii)  The services shall prepare reports on all its users activities, including but not limited to those activities relating to extremism, including contact information, personal details, locations visited and any other information that may be determined from such information.

iv)  The services shall provide these reports to the security services, the police and any others authorised by the Secretary of State.

v) The services shall delete the accounts of any user upon the request of the security services, the police or any others authorised by the Secretary of State.

vi)  The services may not report that they have provided the access or these reports to anyone without the express permission of the Secretary of State.

6. Disorder

At a time of disorder, as determined by the Secretary of State, the security services or a police officer, the services shall provide the following:

i) Immediate access to location data of all users.

ii) Immediate access to all communications data of all users

iii) Detailed information on all accounts that have any relationship to the disorder

iv) Deletion of accounts of any users deemed to be involved, or likely to be involved, in disorder.

v) Upon order by the Secretary of State, the security services or a police officer, the services shall block all access to their services in an area to be determined by the Secretary of State.

7. Acceptance of Blame

The services shall recognise that their social and moral responsibility includes the requirement to accept the blame for the existence, escalation or consequences of any extremism or disorder. This acceptance of blame must be acknowledged in writing and in the broadcast media, ensuring that the government, the security services and the police are not held responsible for their own roles in such extremism or disorder or their consequences.

8. Costs

All costs for the development, implementation, monitoring, updating and supporting the systems required for the services to comply with the Facebook And Twitter – Handling Extremism And Disorder Act 2014 shall be borne by the services.

9. Extent, commencement and short title

i) This Act extends to England, Wales, and anywhere else on the entire planet, and in addition to inner and outer space, the moon, any planets, comets and other bodies as deemed appropriate by the Secretary of State.

ii) This Act comes into force on the day on which this Act is passed.

iii) This Act may be cited as the Facebook And Twitter – Handling Extremism And Disorder Act 2014.


 

Trolls, threats, the law and deterrence…

trollhunter600

“Internet trolls face up to two years in jail under new laws” screamed the headline on the BBC’s website yesterday, after Chris Grayling decided to “take a stand against a baying cyber-mob”. It’s not the first time that so-called ‘trolls’ have been made the subject of a government ‘stand’ – and a media furore. This particular one arose after TV presenter Chloë Madeley suffered online abuse – that abuse itself triggered by the comments about rape made by her mother, Judy Finnigan, also a TV presenter, on Loose Women.

Twitter ‘trolls’ seem to be a big theme at the moment. Just a few weeks ago we had the tragic case of Brenda Leyland, who it appears committed suicide after being doorstepped by Sky News, accused of ‘trolling’ the parents of Madeleine McCann. A month ago, Peter Nunn was jailed for 18 weeks after a series of abusive tweets aimed at MP Stella Creasy. There are others – not forgetting the ongoing saga of GamerGate (one of my favourite posts on this is here), though that seems to be far bigger news in the US than it is here in the UK. The idea of a troll isn’t something new, and it doesn’t seem to be going away. Nothing’s very clear, though – and what I’ve set out below is very much my personal view.

What is a troll?

There’s still doubt about where the term comes from. It’s not clear that it refers to the kind of beast in the picture above – from the weirdly wonderful Norwegian film ‘Trollhunter’. A few years ago, I was certain it came from a totally different source – ‘trolling’, a kind of fishing where you trail a baited line behind your boat as you row, hoping that some fish comes along and bites it – but I understand now that even that’s in doubt. Most people think of monsters – perhaps hiding under bridges, ready to be knocked off them by billy goats, or perhaps huge, stupid Tolkeinian hulks – but what they are on the internet seems very contentious. In the old days, again, trolls were often essentially harmless – teasing, annoying, trying to get a rise out of people. The kind of thing that I might do on twitter by writing a poem about UKIP, for example – but what happens now can be quite different. The level of nastiness can get seriously extreme – from simple abuse to graphic threats of rape and murder. The threats can be truly hideous – and, from my perspective at least, if you haven’t been a victim of this kind of thing, it’s not possible to really understand what it’s like. I’ve seen some of the tweets – but only a tiny fraction, and I know that what I’ve seen is far from the worst.

The law

The first thing to say is that Grayling’s announcement doesn’t actually seem to be anything new: the ‘quadrupling of sentences’ was brought in in March this year, as an amendment to the Malicious Communications Act 1988.  This is just one of a number of laws that could apply to some of the activities that are described as ‘trolling’. Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 is another, which includes the provision that a person is guilty of an offence if he: “sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”.  The infamous ‘Twitter Joke Trial’ of Paul Chambers was under this Act. There have also been convictions for social media posting under the Public Order Act 1986 Section 4A, which makes it an offence to “…with intent to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress…  use[s] threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or …displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,” Then there’s the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, and potentially Defamation Law too (though that’s civil rather than criminal law).  The law does apply to the internet, and plenty of so-called ‘trolls’ have been prosecuted – and indeed jailed.

What is a threat?

One of the most common reactions that I’ve seen when these issues come up is to say that ‘threats’ should be criminalised, but ‘offensive language’ should not. It’s quite right that freedom of speech should include the freedom to be offensive – if we only allow speech that we agree with, that’s not freedom of speech at all. The problem is that it’s not always possible to tell what is a threat and what is just an offensive opinion – or even a joke. If we think jokes are ‘OK’, then people who really are threatening and offensive will try to say that what they said was just a joke – Peter Nunn did so about his tweets to Stella Creasy. If we try to set rules about what is an opinion and what is a threat, we may find that those who want to threaten couch their language in a way that makes it possible to argue that it’s an opinion.

For example, tweeting to someone that you’re going to rape and murder them is clearly a threat, but tweeting to a celebrity who’s had naked pictures leaked onto the internet that ‘celebrities who take naked pictures of themselves deserve to be raped’ could, potentially, be argued to be an opinion, however offensive. And yet it would almost certainly actually be a threat. A little ‘cleverness’ with language can mask a hideous threat – a threat with every bit as nasty an effect on the person receiving it. It’s not just the words, it’s the context, it’s the intent. It’s whether it’s part of a concerted campaign – or a spontaneous twitter storm.

One person’s troll is another person’s freedom fighter…

The other thing that’s often missed here is that many (perhaps most) so-called trolls wouldn’t consider themselves to be trolls. Indeed, quite the opposite. A quick glance at GamerGate shows that: many of those involved think they’re fighting for survival against forces of oppression. There’s the same story elsewhere: those involved in the so-called ‘trolling’ of the McCanns would (and do) say that they’re campaigning to expose a miscarriage of justice, to fight on behalf of a dead child. Whether someone’s a terrorist or a freedom fighter can depend on the perspective – and that means that laws presented in terms like those used by Grayling used are even less likely to have any kind of deterrent effect. If you don’t consider yourself a troll, why would a law against trolls have any impact?

Whether increasing sentences has any deterrent effect to start with is also deeply questionable. Do those ‘trolling’ even consider the possible sentence? Do they know that what they’re doing is against the law – even with the many laws enumerated above, and the series of convictions under them, many seem to think that the law doesn’t really apply on the internet. Many believe (falsely) that their ‘anonymity’ will protect them – despite the evidence that it won’t. It’s hard to see that sentences are likely to make any real difference at all to ‘trolling’.

There are no silver bullets…

The problem is, that there really isn’t a simple answer to the various things that are labelled ‘trolling’. A change in law won’t make the difference on its own. A change in technology won’t make a difference on its own – those who think that better enforcement by Twitter themselves will make everything OK are sadly far too optimistic. What’s more, any tools – legal or technological – can be used by the wrong people in the wrong way as well as by the right people in the right way. Put in a better abuse reporting system and the ‘trolls’ themselves will use it to report their erstwhile ‘victims’ for abuse. What used to be called ‘flame wars’ where two sides of an argument continually accuse the others of abuse still exist. Laws will be misused – the Twitter Joke Trial is just one example of the prosecutors really missing the point.

There is no simple ‘right’ answer. The various problems lumped together under the vague and misleading term ‘trolling’ are complex societal problems – so solving them is a complex process. Making the law work better is one tiny part – and that doesn’t mean just making it harsher. Indeed, my suspicion is that the kind of pronouncement that Chris Grayling made is likely to make things worse, not better: it doesn’t help understanding at all, and understanding is the most important thing. If we don’t know what we mean by the term ‘troll’, and we don’t understand why people do it, how can we solve – or at least reduce – the problems that arise?

Posturing – and obscuring

The thing is, I’m not convinced that the politicians necessarily even want to solve these problems. Internet trolls are very convenient villains – they’re scary, they’re hidden, they’re dangerous, they’re new, they’re nasty. It’s very easy for the fog of fear to be built up very quickly when internet trolling comes up as a subject. Judy Finnigan’s original (and in my view deeply offensive) remarks about Ched Evans’ rape conviction have been hidden under this troll-fog. Trolls make a nice soundbite, a nice headline – and they’re in some ways classical ‘folk devils’ upon which to focus anger and hate. Brenda Leyland’s death was a stark reminder of how serious this can get. A little more perspective, a little more intelligence and a little less posturing could really help here.

The Ballad of KipperNick

Nick RobinsonIn the run up to the local and European elections, I became increasingly frustrated by the way that the BBC were dealing with them. It wasn’t really something new so much as an accumulation of frustrations over the last few years – the way that, it seemed to me, the BBC had played a pivotal part in the rise of UKIP. Anyway, more of that later. I decided to have a little experiment. I created a Twitter account, @KipperNick – a parody of Nick Robinson, who seemed to be playing the role of cheerleader-in-chief for Nigel Farage and UKIP. The main reason was to vent a little of my anger at the BBC, but I also thought I would have some fun – and I really did. I learned a little bit too…

This was @KipperNick’s first tweet:

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I followed it with a few along similar lines – I didn’t try to hide the fact that this was a parody account. The name ‘KipperNick’ should have made it pretty obvious for a start, and the bio clearly described it as a parody. Perhaps my humour was a little dark – though I think that darkness was appropriate for the subject matter. Anyway, the little parody was pretty successful from the start – a lot of RTs (as in that case), including a couple with over 200:

Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 17.11.02

Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 17.11.15All in all, it was fun and a bit strange – I found it surprisingly easy to parrot the kind of language that Nick Robinson uses, and a lot of fun to tease him. I did wonder whether the man himself ever read the tweets – I did @mention him a couple of times – but I doubt it very much. There were, however, a couple of things that happened that surprised me. The first was that within about 10 tweets, the account was briefly suspended – I imagine someone reported me for something. On my main account, I’ve never been suspended – I’ve done over 127,000 tweets with it, and some pretty provocative – but with @KipperNick it took no time at all. I assumed at the time it was a disgruntled UKIPper… they do seem to be a bit trigger happy.

The second thing that surprised me was the number of people who thought I was the real Nick Robinson. As I’ve said, I didn’t exactly disguise the account very well, but I had a lot of people tweet at me as though I was the real Nick. Some thought I was serious about there being interviews with Nigel Farage on the hour every hour on election day. Others were seemingly genuinely angry with the BBC’s obsession with UKIP, and thought my tweets were the real thing. It wasn’t just one or two, but lots.

Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 17.30.15The trouble was, I don’t think my parody was far from the mark at all. When the BBC really did try to link a report from the French Open tennis to Nigel Farage, it was beyond the level of parody. When I posted this, people didn’t believe it – but it was the one entirely genuine post of the whole story of @KipperNick.

So what does all of this mean? Well, for me, it means that the BBC should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves – and as I listened to David Dimbleby’s increasingly nervous chuckle during the European election broadcast, I think they were beginning to feel a little of that themselves. They’re not stupid – well, I don’t think so.

The idea of putting Nigel Farage on Question Time regularly probably seemed like fun to start with – and the broadcasters do like to shake things up. Mainstream politics IS incredibly dull at the moment, with three main parties pursuing seemingly identical policies in most ways, with candidates looking pretty much identical and sounding pretty much identical. Having a ‘funny’ character like Farage on to spice things up sounds like a great idea – but the more they did it, and without serious criticism, the bigger a hole they were digging. When you add to the equation the huge amounts of xenophobia, homophobia and misogyny in the tabloid press in particular, the momentum starts to build.

The BBC is hardly blameless in other ways – and the rest of the TV industry could be even worse. The amount of ‘poverty porn’ on our screens over the last few years has been part of a larger level of encouragement of a divisive, blame-based approach to our problems. It fosters hate – and the UKIP agenda feeds directly into it. Over the last few weeks the media seems to have realised this a little, and started to scrutinise UKIP a bit more – but until James O’Brien’s interview on LBC mere days before the election, Farage had never been called properly to account either on TV or on radio. The BBC should feel thoroughly ashamed of their role in this – and there should be some serious soul-searching going on.

Mind you, I doubt very much that any is happening at all. Memories seem almost as absent as consciences in the BBC.

A Defence of Responsible Tweeting…

I presented a paper at the Society of Legal Scholars conference in Edinburgh with the title ‘Twitter Defamation: A Defence of Responsible Tweeting”. I’ve put a little movie version of the slides of my presentation at the bottom of this blog post.

The primary idea behind the paper was to develop a little further an idea that I had soon after the Sally Bercow/Lord McAlpine business, and which I blogged about for The Justice Gap at the time. At a detailed level, the question I am asking is whether there should be a specific form of defence against defamation available for tweeters – a ‘defence of responsible tweeting’ – when tweeters have behaved ‘responsibly’ in terms that make sense for twitter, rather than for conventional journalism. As Alex Andreou asked in the New Statesman at the time, ‘Can every Twitter user be expected to fact check Newsnight?’

I think not – and in my paper (see the slides below) I set out a broad-brush, first draft idea of the kind of level of fact checking and verification that I think would be reasonable and suit the nature of Twitter, as well as how this might fit with the law. As I said, this is very much a work in progress…

More research is needed, and some of the ideas are still rudimentary – but the more I have looked into the subject the clearer it has seemed to me that our defamation law, even after the reforms in the Defamation Act 2013, has not taken on board the changes that have come about as a result of the development of the social media, and of Twitter in particular. It is still law based in the ‘old’ world, designed to deal with conventional journalism – and the reforms have been designed to shift the balance more in favour of freedom of expression also in the old sense, to help conventional journalists. The defences provided also seem to suit conventional journalists rather than bloggers – and in particular Tweeters.

I hope this can change – and that a way can be found to help Tweeters more – because, as well as outlining a legal defence of ‘responsible tweeting’, in the end my paper is intended as a ‘real’ defence of responsible tweeting. For me, tweeting is important, and makes a valuable contribution to freedom of expression – it does things that conventional journalism in particular fails to do. It is a two way process – and though people often seem to forget it, freedom of expression, as set out in the various human rights documents (and in particular the European Convention on Human Rights, which celebrated 60 years of existence yesterday) includes the right to both impart and receive information. Twitter, and other forms of social media, allow that two-way process in a way that has never been possible before. It is also a process that is available to ordinary people, not just professional journalists – and freedom of expression is a human right, not a journalists’ right.

This is not just a theoretical right – Twitter has a practical and real impact on freedom of speech. It’s pretty much impossible to list all the ways in which Twitter enables freedom of speech, but one particular set of ways relate to its interaction with conventional media. It allows people to comment on things in the conventional media, to correct for errors, to criticise and highlight bias or prejudices, to add value by adding links to more information. It can take programmes or stories that have small audiences and disseminate them to much, much wider audiences. It can spread stories from one part of the world to another – so we can see make comparisons and see things in perspective. It provides a voice for people who aren’t professional journalists, politicians or celebrities – people who find it very hard to have a voice through the conventional media.

All of this matters – and all of this is worth defending. Of course there are some hideous problems with Twitter, and some thoroughly irresponsible uses, from the horrendous threats and abuse we’ve seen recently, to hate speech, to rumour-mongering and defamation – but we shouldn’t forget the great benefits and throw the baby out with the bathwater. Responsible tweeting matters.

These are the slides – I hope that there will be a proper written paper in the reasonably near future.