Stan Collymore has spent much of the day on the airwaves of Britain after attacking Twitter for its lack of action on abuse. He has been the victim of some appalling abuse on Twitter. In spite of several weeks of trying, Twitter has done little if anything about it.
This is not the first time Twitter has been accused of intransigence over abuse. Several high profile people have been attacked on Twitter and almost nothing done about it. And these are cases where they can get their voice heard on national radio and TV because they are celebrities. Pity the unknown people who are abused online and who have no way of grabbing attention. If Twitter is doing nothing to support well-known people who can get mass media attention, you can only assume they are ignoring the rest of us. Indeed, I know they are ignoring me. The UK boss of Twitter says on his LinkedIn profile that the only way of contacting him is to send him a Tweet. For several days last year I Tweeted him following another high profile Twitter abuse case – Professor Mary Beard. I did not get a single response to my Tweets offering to provide psychological insights to help Twitter deal with such situations. Either the boss somehow missed my Tweets or did not want me to help – a polite “no thank you” would have been nice. Or is the lack of response an indication that the problem is something they don’t want to address?
Perhaos online abuse too big a problem for Twitter to handle? There are currently 6,000 Tweets sent every second. Monitoring that volume of material and doing something about it is frankly impossible. The company employs around 2,000 people worldwide, meaning that each of them would have to monitor three Tweets every second and do nothing else, 24/7. That’s not going to happen…!
But they will have data on the “sentiment” of Twitter – the proportion of negative and abusive words, the degree of swearing and so on. Indeed there is software you can use to check the emotional level of Tweets on any topic. No doubt Twitter have their own sophisticated tools to see what is going on. Perhaps those tools are telling them that there is a significant level of abuse and negative behaviour – and if they did agree to deal with it the volume of work created would be just to high.
Why might that be? Because people can be nasty. Inside our brains is the potential for any of us to be horrible. The one thing that Twitter has done is to make public what psychologists have known for ages – there are some pretty nasty folks out there.
After all, as you sit there reading this there are brains at work in Syria clearly believing that torture, rape and killing are the right things to do. The human brain has immense capacity for being vile; ask any forensic psychologist.
However, in the real world, outside the Internet, much of the horrors inside the minds of many people simply do not get expressed. Here’s what happens.
A group of lads is having a bit of banter down the pub and they talk about football. They get chatting about good players from the past and they mention Stan Collymore. Then one of them says something which has racist overtones and mentions some of his past mistakes. Within seconds the person who says this is shut up by the other people in the pub – they say the individual is disgusting or racist. “You can’t say things like that,” they shout. And the direction of the conversation is changed. Sometimes the person who thinks the negative things doesn’t even get the chance to say them. They are about to vocalise them when they notice the body language of their friends, the facial expressions which are all saying “don’t say what I think you are about to say”.
In the real world much of the vile thinking inside some people’s heads never gets out. They are inhibited from saying it, or they are shut up, stopped from adding anything more on the topic.
On the Internet, however, there are several problems. For a start the person making the vile abusive statement is not present with other people who can act as an inhibitory force. That means things that would normally be prevented from being said in the real world are being said in the online one. Plus, sometimes people might think they are cracking a joke – a bad one admittedly – but on Twitter there is no accompanying tone of voice or facial expressions that indicate it is a joke. As a result we read it at face value – abuse. Not only that, the Tweet is permanent and is received by the person who is being criticised. Stan Collymore, for instance, would not know if people abused him in the pubs up and down the country. Even if they did, it would not affect him emotionally because he wouldn’t know about it. But on Twitter it only needs one abusive Tweet and he does know – and it can’t go away.
Today, Olympic diver, Tom Daley has suggested that people ignore online “trolls”. That’s easier said than done. Besides, for someone like Tom with a busy schedule and lots of media work to do, there are plenty of distractions to take him away from any negative Tweeting. But if you are a teenage girl, abused for your looks and you have no distractions other than homework, ignoring what is said on Twitter is not so easy.
So what can be done about this situation?
One important factor would be education. Twitter is so new people are experimenting; indeed they do feel they are down the pub having a chat with their mates and forget they are broadcasting to the world. If people even stopped and thought of that for a second, millions of negative Tweets would not be sent. Education programmes are urgently needed and this is something Twitter should be pressed into funding.
After all, the company is one of a group of major firms in hot water over its UK tax affairs. Sorting that out is next to impossible for the Government – the company is not doing anything illegal. And if the UK Government changed the law to get more tax out of the company, it would dramatically affect the economy as dozens of global businesses could just operate from outside the UK. However, the UK Government can bring pressure onto Twitter about their behaviour – their Corporate and Social Responsibility. The Government can make it clear that Twitter needs to help educate people by contributing funding to projects in schools and universities and to provide courses for adults as well as booklets and leaflets distributed to UK homes.
It would not solve all abuse, but it would be a start.
Meanwhile, you could do something yourself. You could increase the positive sentiment around Stan Collymore, by Tweeting the fact that you support his desire to get something done about online abuse.
Graham Jones is an Internet Psychologist who studies the way people use the online world, in particular how people engage with businesses. He uses this knowledge to help companies improve their online connections to their customers and potential customers and offers consultancy, workshops, masterclasses and webinars. He also speaks regularly at conferences and business events. Graham is an award-winning writer and the author of 32 books, several of which are about various aspects of the Internet. For more information connect with me on Google+