Twitter is a great tool for campaigners, advocates, students, journalists and indeed anyone who needs to keep in touch and up to date with happenings of the world. Initially receiving a lukewarm response in 2006 for suggesting we could make meaningful exchanges in 140 characters or less, Twitter is a service which allows anyone to sign up for an account with an email address and whichever name they wish to assume. A process which takes under 60 seconds. There is no requirement to provide anything more than an email address, assumed name and the password of your choice; photographs are optional as are locations and the linking of an account to a mobile telephone.
Twitter, by its very nature attracts an element desirous of a good old 'troll', somewhere to pick people apart, embarrass them, make inflammatory comments while retreating safely and comfortably under the banner of 'freedom of speech'. This notion of freedom of speech has developed over the years and now some believe they can say anything to anyone at any time without any redress or comeuppance. Words exchanged from a soap box on Buchanan Street or a gum-laden stair in Easterhouse are very different than those put on the internet, accessible by the world and their dog. This isn't the warped view of a jaded Twitter user but fact as demonstrated by the appetite and willingness of the CPS, COPFS and police forces in the UK to pursue convictions for those engaging in the sending of abusive and threatening messages.
'Trolling' is often viewed as an occupational hazard for those using Twitter and much of the disgusting abuse directed at users goes unreported. High-profile Twitter users are often seen as easy targets with a large following and viewed as more likely to respond to and engage with their abusers. Engagement is what the troll is looking for and if the individual takes offence or shows signs they are upset or hurt, then the troll has exactly what they are looking for.
While all serious Twitter users will come across or view abuse and threats on Twitter at some point, much of the most insidious and disturbing material is directed to celebs or high-profile users. Take the obnoxious and sectarian comments and threats made to ex-Celtic manager Neil Lennon; the bomb threats sent to revered classicist Professor Mary Beard and Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman, to the vulgar threats of rape tweeted to Labour MP Stella Creasy and feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez.
From humble roots in the United States of America, Twitter has swept across the world and boasts 255 million active followers per month. The service is accessible across the globe and has proudly taken its place at the table as an indispensable tool for networking, citizen journalism and the overcoming of artificial borders and controls in the sharing of information.
I am not a singer, I am not a football player and I am not a high-flying businessperson nor am I a millionaire playboy known for splashing my cash around at Royal Ascot; I am an equality and human rights advocate, blogger, volunteer and someone with an over-riding interest in and dedication to standing up for the plights of those easily trampled on and forgotten by the state.
I have thick skin, very thick skin and I regularly receive Twitter comments ranging from the tame and jejune 'fag', 'fudge packer', 'cock sucker', 'spazzy' and 'ugly cunt' to the more personal and nasty 'you should have been kicked out of your mums womb', 'I'd slit your throat fag', 'You should get raped with a machete' and 'Hitler had the right idea. Put you faggot bastards in an oven at 230 degrees until crispy'.
While constant abuse, insults and threats are tiring, grinding and does nothing but lowers one's spirit, my biggest issue with Twitter is the tens of impersonation accounts which appear on a weekly basis to declare my 'love of the bum', 'allegiance to the BNP' and my supposed penchant for corrupting the minds of the law-abiding heterosexual majority. While the aforementioned examples are clearly not my own and anyone at all versed in the workings of Twitter would know that they were 'parody' or 'pisstake' accounts, the problem lies in the accounts which mimic or duplicate my own profile. Many of the imposter accounts use my image, my name, copy my bio, follow those following me and tweet in order to make it look as though I have opened a new profile.
I receive emails, DM's and Facebook messages asking why I opened a new account and what the strange survey was I sent them; messages asking me why I had a new email address and of course the screenshots from those aware of my impersonation plight. A Member of Parliament who shall remain nameless as their request, contacted me to apologise for being cut off as they only had use of a staffer's pre-paid mobile on the day in question and their credit ran out. I was bemused to say the least as I didn't recall speaking to them on the telephone (unless I was sleep answering again!) and I gave him a call only to discover that my 'new' Twitter profile had messaged him asking him to call me about a constituent which he duly did. The number he was asked to call was a premium rate telephone number which zapped £12 from the mobile telephone in a matter of minutes of being placed on hold.
Now one can be forgiven for thinking that Twitter was 'on it' immediately and came to the rescue, doing anything they can to prevent continued abuse and confusion resulting from impersonation and its associated ills - the reality of course is very different. In order to report impersonation you have to locate the appropriate form on Twitter's website, complete it, provide information about the impersonation and links to your image on another website (to confirm it's your image), submit the form, wait for usually around 5 days to receive an automated and infuriating reply asking you to upload your passport or other Government issued ID (despite providing ticket ID's in the report where you uploaded the requested documentation before), wait a further 2 - 3 days to receive an automated reply advising you the profile was suspended for breaching their impersonation policy. Of course, it goes without saying that despite writing War and Peace in each report, providing details of all other reports and ticket ID's in each impersonation report; an automated reply is what you are getting... like it or lump it! No questions are answered and with nothing other than a canned response, enlightenment is put on the back burner. I collect impersonation ticket numbers like pogs, football stickers or tattoos... whatever your poison.
Do Twitter do enough to protect users affected by abuse and threats? Not unless your tormentor happens to name a time and place for your demise or, it seems, provides you with an encircled Google map or coordinates of where the showdown is to take place.
Impersonation? Oh that! Yeah, fill in the form and we will get round to deleting it.
Kevin Healey, a revered Equality and Autism campaigner has similarly been affected by abuse on Twitter. We have set up a central place at twitterabuse.tumblr.com to collate and share details of our abuse and our dealings with Twitter in this respect. Facebook have been excellent and very forward thinking regarding the problem of trolling and impersonation and certainly don't take 7 days to remove such profiles. Both myself and Kevin Healey have our profiles verified in order to ensure impersonation isn't an issue.