Who bears the ethical responsibility for rape and murder tweets?

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on January 13, 2014

From The News Desk

Recently the Pacific Standard published a fiery, damning report on why the Internet doesn't welcome women. It's penned by Amanda Hess, a journalist who has written for Slate and ESPN, among other outlets. It's a terrifying indictment on virtual harassment.

Hess' reporting is exhaustive and ranges from her personal experiences with a cyberstalker to nauseating stats on the number of women who face online harassment, to exploring the lack of legal recourse when such things occur. Hess discusses the fact that local police departments, many of which are underfunded and stretched thin, don't know how to handle these situations.

In story after story, a woman called the cops after receiving rape or murder threats online, and the police didn't so much as take a report. Many officials didn't even understand the technology platforms on which such threats were occurring. Hess called 911 after Twitter user "headlessfemalepig" said he would rape and decapitate her. The police officer who showed up asked, "What is Twitter?"

In many of the virtual harassment stories Hess relayed, police told women not to use these websites, treating platforms like Twitter as though it's an idle source of entertainment and not -- as is the case for many people -- crucial communication tools for their professional and social lives.

The whole essay is riveting, but the section that really jumped out at me, and the one I wanted to explore more in detail here, told a story about what role Internet platforms play in this world.

A woman in England incurred the wrath of netizens this past summer, for starting a petition to put more women on England's currency. She was hounded by harassers, who tweeted the typical rape and death threats (one pleasant example: “I will rape you tomorrow at 9 p.m … Shall we meet near your house?”).

From Hess' story, here was Twitter's response to the problem.

Twitter’s official recommendation to victims of abuse puts the ball squarely in law enforcement’s court: “If an interaction has gone beyond the point of name calling and you feel as though you may be in danger,” it says, “contact your local authorities so they can accurately assess the validity of the threat and help you resolve the issue offline.”
It's true that Twitter is not legally liable for threats made by its users. The Communications Decency Act ensured that in America online platforms would be treated like innocent middlemen.

Section 230 states, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” It's the reason YouTube, Yelp, Craigslist, and other user-generated content sites are safe from lawsuits.

When users threaten to rape, dismember, bomb, murder, or otherwise harm anyone else, the buck passes right by a platform like Twitter.

This makes perfect sense, of course. How could Internet platforms, whose scope ranges across the world, possibly be responsible for the material published by their users? If these companies were required to chase down every asshole or psycho online, they could not function. If they had to pay out in court anytime this happened, they'd quickly go bankrupt.

At the same time, even though these companies aren't legally obligated to do anything, perhaps they should consider their ethical obligations. By largely refusing to take action against such harassment, Twitter is allowing the treatment to continue.

Of course, it's hard to say what Twitter should do differently to stop such activity. It already has a "report abuse" button that allows people to block a user from contacting them or seeing their tweets. Twitter will frequently deactivate an account that someone reports as a harasser. But because the company doesn't require users to verify their identity, said harasser can just turn around, create another username, and start the harassment all over again.

The company also has to balance its actions against harassers with its commitment to protecting free speech and users' privacy. It has prioritized such concerns well above protecting its users from harassment, for better or worse.

There are no easy answers, but engaging with the problem and grappling with solutions is better than ignoring it exists at all.

As a woman, I would feel better if Twitter at least had a department solely dedicated to harassment issues, whose responsibility involved working with local law enforcements when such threats against a user get out of hand. After all, its users' safety on the site should take at least as high a precedence as the needs of developers or businesses.

Unfortunately, there's not necessarily a financial pressure to do so. As Hess says, "[M]any platforms—like the dedicated “revenge porn” sites that have proliferated on the Web—don’t need to appease women to stay popular."