Twitter Trolls Beware! The Sleeping Giant May Be Rising

The word “Troll” is defined in the Urban Dictionary 256 times. Generally speaking, an Internet Troll is a member of an Internet forum who continually harangues and harasses others. One who posts a deliberately provocative message (generally attacking another person) with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument.

He will spark such an argument via the use of ad hominem attacks with no substance or relevance. Trolls often go by multiple names to circumvent getting banned. Recently, we’ve witnessed a rise in trolling and the abuse has risen way beyond language that anyone could possibly consider acceptable, with some women being the target of abuse and threats of rape.

What Do Our Courts Think About Internet Trolls?

The best I can tell, our court system, and, frankly society as a whole, hasn’t been able to determine the social and legal consequences of this type of behavior found on Twitter and other social networks. There remains a certain back-and-forth around which offensive comments should be protected by the First Amendment right of free speech and which comments are unlawful. One thing we do know is that our First Amendment free speech rights are not without limits. In 1919, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s opinion in the United States Supreme Court case Schenck v. United States provided us with an analogy that in many ways, remains true today, “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater,” is not speech protected by the First Amendment. Holmes wrote:

The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. [... ] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.

The courts have ruled that one may not falsely yell “FIRE” in a crowded theater because of the chaos, the clear and present danger that may ensue. Dissecting the definition provided above leaves us with, “One who posts a deliberately provocative message with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument.” You decide. Is that definition of a Troll one that calls for protection under the U.S. Constitution? It remains to be seen what the courts think. One thing is certain, while we wait on the courts to determine this issue, we should be able to require the leadership of social networks like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. to make some hard decisions and act responsibly in accordance with public opinion. This is especially true when your company is in the news a lot like Twitter has been lately.
“We Suck At Dealing With Abuse And Trolls”

Last week, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo admitted Twitter has not done enough to derail the trolls. Many agree with his analysis that “we suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years.” Costolo wrote that “It’s no secret and the rest of the world talks about it every day. We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day.” On Mon, Feb 2, 2015 at 8:35 PM, Dick Costolo wrote:

We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years. It’s no secret and the rest of the world talks about it every day. We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day. I’m frankly ashamed of how poorly we’ve dealt with this issue during my tenure as CEO. It’s absurd. There’s no excuse for it. I take full responsibility for not being more aggressive on this front. It’s nobody else’s fault but mine, and it’s embarrassing. We’re going to start kicking these people off right and left and making sure that when they issue their ridiculous attacks, nobody hears them. Everybody on the leadership team knows this is vital.


Costolo was replying to an employee who was referring to an interview by Lindy West about being targeted by trolls on Twitter. She interviewed one of her trolls on “This American Life” and The Guardian. Recently, we’ve also seen Robin Williams daughter Zelda harassed following her father’s suicide. On Mon, Feb 2, 2015 at 4:37 PM, Adrian Cole wrote:

I’m aware that Twitter is well within its rights to let its platform be used as a vehicle for sexist and racist harassment. But, as a private company – just like a comedian mulling over a rape joke, or a troll looking for a target for his anger – it could choose not to. As a collective of human beings, it could choose to be better.

Costolo later sent a follow-up message reiterating that he was taking responsibility for Twitter’s slowness in addressing the problem. On Tue, Feb 3, 2015 at 12:45 PM, Dick Costolo wrote:

Let me be very very clear about my response here. I take PERSONAL responsibility for our failure to deal with this as a company. I thought I did that in my note, so let me reiterate what I said, which is that I take personal responsibility for this. I specifically said “It’s nobody’s fault but mine” We HAVE to be able to tell each other the truth, and the truth that everybody in the world knows is that we have not effectively dealt with this problem even remotely to the degree we should have by now, and that’s on me and nobody else. So now we’re going to fix it, and I’m going to take full responsibility for making sure that the people working night and day on this have the resources they need to address the issue, that there are clear lines of responsibility and accountability, and that we don’t equivocate in our decisions and choices. ~ Dick

“It’s nobody’s fault but mine.”

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

I’m pleased to hear the CEO of Twitter is in support of finding a remedy to this problem. But, I have to wonder if he’s speaking out now only because the memo containing these words was leaked to The Verge. Writing an internal memo is one thing. Actually doing something about the problem is another. In the United Kingdom, Internet trolls could face up to two years in jail under plans being put forth by the Chris Grayling, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice since 2012. Grayling favors a crackdown on trolling and harsh penalties because it was leading to “absolute misery for victims.” He said the venom thrown at people over the internet would never be acceptable in real life.

Last November Twitter partnered with an advocacy group called WAM! to investigate harassment against women. So far, these efforts don’t seem to have worked. Every day women face threats of physical violence, sexual abuse, and stalking, all forms of harassment that disproportionately affect women online, according to data from The Pew Center. Pew Research asked respondents about six different forms of online harassment.

Those who witnessed harassment said they had seen at least one of the following occur to others online:

60% of internet users said they had witnessed someone being called offensive names
53% had seen efforts to purposefully embarrass someone
25% had seen someone being physically threatened
24% witnessed someone being harassed for a sustained period of time
19% said they witnessed someone being sexually harassed
18% said they had seen someone be stalked

Those who have personally experienced online harassment said they were the target of at least one of the following online:

27% of internet users have been called offensive names
22% have had someone try to purposefully embarrass them
8% have been physically threatened
8% have been stalked
7% have been harassed for a sustained period
6% have been sexually harassed

Can This Problem Be Solved?

Twitter released some tools to improve its process for reporting abuse in December and, recently we have seen some action. In January Twitter banned some users sharing of a video of journalist James Foley being beheaded by Islamic State militants. When Zelda Williams announced she was leaving Twitter following some relentless harassment after her father’s suicide, Twitter promised to delete some accounts sharing images of Zelda’s father Robin Williams.


So, what’s the solution? I know this sounds crazy, but what about hiring some humans and tasking them with monitoring feeds to weed out bad seeds? Tumblr, Facebook and Google reportably have staff working behind the scenes to delete inappropriate content. Both Facebook and Google have reported spending millions of dollars deleting images of child sexual abuse, nude images and violent videos from the Internet. Tumblr also looks to remove hate speech, violent images and sexually explicit content.

What’s taking Twitter so long to get in the game? The stakes are high. Twitter’s growth has slowed. The last report I saw was that Twitter had 284 million active monthly users, an increase of less than 5% from the previous quarter. Maybe it’s time for Twitter shareholders to speak up.

What do you think?

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