Twitter Trolls, the Law and Respect
Over the past week, news headlines in the UK have been dominated - and rightly so - by stories about women who've become the targets of personal threats on Twitter, the social networking site.
The most famous of the women concerned, historian Mary Beard, attracted online abuse after an appearance on BBC TV. Ms Beard received a bomb threat apparently because she lent her support for a boycott of Twitter, until it took adequate measures to stop bullying and harassment of women.
Meanwhile, at least two people have been arrested in relation to rape threats made against Stella Creasy, Labour MP and Caroline Criado-Perez, the feminist who led a campaign to have Jane Austen on the new £10 note.
Late last week, the e-crime unit attached to the Metropolitan Police claimed it was investigating allegations by eight people of 'harassment, malicious communication or bomb threats' suffered on Twitter.
When the stories broke, more than 125,000 people backed an online petition calling for Twitter to add a clearly accessible 'report abuse' button to tweets.
The head of Twitter in the UK, Tony Wang, says that the threats were 'simply not acceptable'. He has pledged to do more to tackle abusive behaviour.
A number of recent studies have looked at the impact and possible causes of cyber-bullying, particularly where children are concerned. Whilst that represents a slightly different type of abuse, these reports are instructive when it comes to threats against women.
The reports have shown that a fundamental issue in cases of online bullying is an assumption of anonymity on behalf of those sending offensive messages.
Because many social networking sites allow people to operate under pseudonyms, users sometimes assume that there is no way of identifying the sender of a message.
Indeed we all face the danger of believing that because we use very personal devices like mobile phones to access the internet, it is automatically a secure environment.
In fact, it is still in many respects an unsafe environment; in part because of its user-friendliness. Its warm familiarity encourages us to hand over sensitive details about ourselves, often to complete strangers.
For some reason, many of us seem to think that writing something to a particular individual via a social media site is the same as whispering that information in person. Social media sites are public thoroughfares not private roads.
We also tend to forget that what goes digital usually stays digital. It is not as easy as most people think to totally delete digital records.
Echoes or traces always exist and these can usually be recovered with relatively sophisticated software. (Of course, what is considered sophisticated and expensive today usually becomes mundane and readily available tomorrow.)
Police e-crime units rely on these programmes to recover incriminating evidence - not only from personal computers, but from the mainframes that drive internet services. Ultimately, internet anonymity is a complete fiction.
Another fiction is the idea that social media offer potential offenders a safety-in-numbers get-out-of-jail card. The law can be very dogged in the way it tracks down individuals within a seemingly nebulous crowd.
(Just ask those unsuspecting one-time criminals who were prosecuted for theft after the London riots of 2011.)
The Wild West?
The bottom line is that our fascination with handy digital devices sometimes blinds us to the fact that the digital world still represents an emerging technology - and an emerging culture.
Much has happened since Sir Tim Berners-Lee and others started playing around with linking documents on remote computers back in the 1980s. Yet, in terms of communications technologies, we are still probably only halfway through the digital revolution.
We can only begin to imagine the full impact our increasing engagement with digital media will have on social structures in, say, 10 or 20 years' time.
The spread of augmented reality technologies such as Google Glass, the rising convergence of traditional and new media and our growing reliance on digital 'cash' will all potentially alter society in ways that defy definitive prediction.
Things may have come a long way since some us launched our first websites in the mid-1990s, but the web still has a strong element of the Wild West about it.
This much is clear from the behaviour of key internet figures like Julian Assange, the leader of WikiLeaks. At times he seems to treat the internet as his personal fiefdom, in which freedom of speech means freedom from accountability and in which he is free to make up the rules of engagement as he goes along.
When a culture has at its core a high level of uncertainty, egocentric or unscrupulous individuals will take advantage of that uncertainty. In the internet's case, they also exploit the trust people place in its can-do environment.
This is not, of course, to suggest that the individuals who've received online threats are in any way complicit in their own victimisation. Nor am I suggesting that those issuing the threats are simply innocent players who're acting uncertainly in a still-developing web culture.
Far from it. The key to social networking is in the name - it is meant to be just that, social and sociable. Indeed, it will not work otherwise.
Those who tweet threats should know that if their behaviour goes unchecked it will eventually close down the very platforms through which they express themselves.
Presumably, this will give rise in them to an even greater sense of powerlessness and social impotency. This may in turn lead them to look for more overt ways of expressing themselves.
It is not technology but human trust that drives most of what we do online. Without trust, online communities will quickly dissipate and people will take their eyes and ears elsewhere.
Supposedly anonymous online threats are simply examples of anti-social behaviour - of the most spineless variety. They should be dealt with as such, under the full weight of existing laws.
The Long Arm of the Law
Explicit threats of violence, whether they're made online or offline, should be met by stiff legal penalties. In the case of social networking, this is an area of law that is still developing.
Given the rapid growth of the public's online engagement, it's perhaps not surprising that the police and the courts have at times seemed slow to move against cyber malcontents. (At least, that is, those who don't specifically incite terrorist acts.)
It is high time, though, that the police and other community agencies were better educated in the ways in which social media are used. They need to be well informed about the way different online communities operate.
They also need to be aware of the likely future impact of still emerging technologies - and given the resources to stay in touch with the changes.
Moving forward, police e-crime units will need to track blatant online threats with the same rigour as they do ID theft and the like. They will need to be given the power, if they don't already have it, to strip away anonymity where there is a clear case of threatening behaviour.
In the interests of the public's internet privacy, this might work best under a warrant system, where an officer of the court grants permission for such procedures.
There is another aspect to the legal question. Threats of physical violence are, perhaps, easier to deal with than the often more widespread problem of abusive language or derogatory remarks.
I've had a number of people - usually those who have some status in the community - complain to me about the verbal abuse they've received on Twitter.
It seems that even the slightest infraction of some imaginary list of 'acceptable opinions' will attract a tirade of forceful, negative and often very personal rants.
I've had a measure of this myself - albeit, thankfully, to a relatively small degree. It is definitely disconcerting to find that, having written an opinion as carefully - and hopefully empathically - as you can, people still want to portray you as the devil incarnate and tell all their friends about your complete lack of humanity.
Of course, the very nature of platforms like Twitter make nuance impossible. Being restricted to just 140 characters doesn't help you demonstrate a well-rounded understanding of the subject at hand.
In the end, the faceless nature of some social networking services makes it easier for people to sound off in ways they wouldn't perhaps dream of doing face-to-face.
Yet the impact of their messages is, in some ways, more harmful because it is done at arms-length. When one can't read the biometrics of one's accusers, it is hard to judge just how serious or how angry they really are.
It is not pleasant to be on the receiving end of vitriol from people you've never met and who know basically nothing about you. Yet dealing with insults is less straightforward than handling outright threats, at least where the law is concerned.
Some have argued for new laws to cover this kind of thing. In fact, law already offers clear recourse for people who have suffered slander which causes emotional distress or the loss of earnings or reputation.
Online slander is as be actionable in the courts as the offline variety, though few cases have borne this out.
Perhaps the best known case to date is that of Conservative peer Lord McAlpine. Late last year, he let it be known that he would seek libel damages from Twitter users who made incorrect and defamatory remarks linking him to child sex abuse.
In the end, he dropped legal action against people with fewer than 500 Twitter followers. He concentrated on suing the wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow because she had a relatively large number of followers and a more prominent voice in the community.
Until the McAlpine case, no one had seriously attempted to exercise the right of recourse against slander via social media.
Now, as far as we the public are concerned, the law concerning Twitter is clearer - if you make a false, defamatory allegation about someone you can be sued for libel. It is the same as publishing a false and damaging report in a newspaper.
Current slander laws will increasingly be applied to social media, but we need to see precedents in the area of violent threats. These will no doubt follow last week's developments.
But what of cases where there no slander or threat of violence? How do you legislate general respect or courtesy?
In the wake of the recent threats, some feminists have expressed concern that the current focus on Twitter may be distracting attention from a much more important issue.
There is, they say, a widespread misogyny running through society generally. Some urge the introduction of new laws to deal with this, but the law can only go so far.
If we're not careful, we may return to the bad old days of hyper political correctness, where making laws became a catch-all response to every social malady. In the end, this led to very confusing results.
Prejudice must be met by better education, starting - but not ending - with the young. Some people obviously need to be shown how prejudice can damage lives.
When it comes to prejudice against women - as opposed to slander or threats of violence - social media communities need to be left to self-correct, as they often do now.
If you say something about another user or group on Twitter and the online community considers it to be beyond the pale, that community can make things very uncomfortable for you.
Not only might you find your inbox bombarded with negative tweets, but you may well become a (negative) viral sensation as people spread the world about your abuse of the system.
For their part, Twitter and other reliable social media services are developing, or already have in place, report mechanisms for their users.
Some are slower than others and Twitter must now be seen to act quickly to make abuse report systems fast and easy-to-use.
Twitter and its peer services can, in time, work more closely with police if a consistent pattern of abuse appears. However, if we expect social media organisations to do the full policing themselves, we may lose the unique free-flowing discourse they currently offer.
They may become too preoccupied with chasing the merely discourteous or disrespectful to improve their security and services in other, more important ways.
Hear Mal's BBC Radio interview on this issue: Click here