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Twitter Hate Crime: Is Prevention Better Than Cure... Or Even Possible?

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There is barely a week goes by without one website, social network or other coming to prominence, and this time it's Twitter hitting the headlines for the wrong reasons once again. Caroline Criado-Perez campaigned to have Jane Austen featured on a bank note, and the Bank of England agreed that the author should replace Charles Darwin on £10 notes.

There are two reasonable reactions to this - congratulating the Bank of England on responding to a campaign to commemorate the female novelist, or becoming upset that another prominent figure wasn't chosen over Austen. One could also have no reaction at all... after all it is perfectly possible that you care not a jot who appears on the front and back of notes and coins.

But there are also a few who react in a bizarre, inexplicable, incomprehensible manner. Over a 12 hour period Criado-Perez was subject to not only the expected tweets of support and derision but also something rather more sinister - threats of rape. Quite what would compel anyone to react in such a way to a woman's successful campaigning is something for psychologists to look into. The fact is it has happened, and it is despicable. These are two indisputable facts.

Oddly, it has been Twitter that has come under fire just as much as those posting the hateful comments. Why? Again, it's a case of 'why isn't someone doing something about this'? Should - and indeed, could - Twitter really be responsible for the policing of the content of the millions of tweets that are made each day?

Events such as this open up question about how people view the internet.

We already know that tweets can be libellous. Really this should not come as a surprise, but for many people this is quite an eye-opener. We now all have the ability publish anything we want online, free of charge, in an instant.

While many users of Twitter and other social networks manually filter what they say, this is far from being the case for everyone. It is very easy to fire off an acid-tongued response to something you disagree with online - particularly when shrouded in the virtual anonymity the internet affords us - but most reasonable internet users till put some thought into what they type, and will frequently self-censor having furiously typed out an angry tirade.

But of course there are those that don't. Witless fools frequently troll online forums and message boards. Hiding behind a keyboard it's easy for someone to succumb to the belief that they are free to say whatever you to whoever they want. The bully mentality has moved from the playground to the online arena with seemingly no consequences.

What many internet users fail to understand is that publishing online - even if it is only a personal blog or website - is little different to publishing in a national newspaper and that it is subject to much the same laws. Threats of rape or violence published in a newspaper would be unimaginable - threats of or incitement to cause violence are illegal. There is no reason for online content to be treated any differently.

So what's the solution? Dredging of user data produces an unmanageable amount of information as the NSA has discovered, and the internet operates on a global level, not just a national one. It is not really feasible to consider having preventive measures in place - it would just not be practical to have every single published article, post, tweet, forum discussion etc vetted for illegal content before it was allowed to go live - so, just as with most crimes, the majority of online crimes can only be dealt with as and when they occur.

It is possible to report objectionable and illegal content to Twitter - users can be reported for posting spam, and the support section of the website can be used to complain about other abuses. There is currently a petition running calling on Twitter to implement a 'Report Abuse' button to make it quicker and easier to voice concerns about tweets - but is this the answer?

If such a button was added to each and every tweet, I think it is likely that it would be subject to abuse itself. See a tweet you disagree with? Report it as abuse. Fallen out with someone and want to get back at them? Report all of their tweets as abusive. This seems petty, but it's very likely that this is exactly how things would pan out.

And if the abuse reporting button is to be of any use at all, Twitter would have to spend time and money properly investigating every single report - regardless of whether it was a report of a serious crime, or a petty squabble between two people.

But if something is a crime, or is considered to be so, it should be the police - national or international as appropriate - who are dealing with things. Companies such as Twitter do not have the infrastructure in place to prevent illegal messages from appearing and nor should the company be expected to proactively seek out illegal content.

Yes, it should be easy to report content that breaks the law, but whatever system is put in place needs to be very carefully implemented or it will be as good as useless. Education of internet users is also important. It needs to be made clear that the web is not a free-for-all where anything goes. Laws that apply to the land, apply to the web. This is something that needs to be unambiguous.

Prevention of disgusting attacks like those on Criado-Perez is practically impossible, but if complete prevention is not possible and cleaning up after the fact is going to be seen as being too late, ensuring that the discouragement of the full weight of the law is hanging over web users might at least help to stem the flow of hate.

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