Twitter and the scourge of cyberbullying

How the tech industry is responding to the difficult contradiction between trolling and freedom of speech on social media

Social networking sites hold a valuable place in modern society. Not only do they provide us with a way to keep in touch with family, friends and colleagues, but they’re also a rich source of media and information. But that’s not to say they’re without their challenges.

Unfortunately, some people use social media as a way to hurt others and target the most vulnerable in society. We’re living in an age where, particularly for youngsters, bullying is dominating the online world. According to statistics from UK children’s charity NSPCC, one in four young people have been through an upsetting experience on social media.

Twitter is thought to be one of the worst social media platforms for online bullying and trolling. A study analysing 134,000 offensive social media posts found that a staggering 88 per cent of them occur on the microblogging site, while only small levels of abuse take place on other websites.

The social networking site has even admitted its failings in the past. When this particular study came out last year, the company’s top general counsel Vijaya Gadde told the press that Twitter is too slow when it comes to tackling trolls. Trolling has turned into a fully-fledged epidemic, and the industry is beginning to react.


A growing epidemic

There’s no doubt that cyberbullying is a significant challenge faced by the world today. While it’s an issue that’s been around for a few years, it’s beginning to be felt by more people as social media continues to grow in importance.

Nick Shaw, VP and general manager EMEA at Norton, believes that children are the most exposed and vulnerable to cyberbullying. As well as facing persecution in the playground, there’s a real risk that they’re also being targeted by bullies online.

“Cyberbullying is a serious issue that will continue to grow as the internet becomes more integral to our everyday lives. Victims of cyberbullying react in many different ways and unfortunately, impacts to mental health don’t necessarily stop when the harassment does,” he tells IDG Connect.

“This doesn’t mean children should avoid the internet, after all it’s an extremely valuable resource for their development, but it is critical we take steps to make sure they have positive online experiences - like educating them about safe internet behaviours.”

Parents can take action by paying a closer attention to the online activities of their children, Shaw suggests. “The common indicator of cyberbullying is also the biggest challenge of tackling online harassment. Secretiveness,” he says.

“Children naturally seek privacy in their online conversations and web presence, even more so when something isn’t right. Establishing online etiquette by addressing how much time, websites visited, and language used online is a good start for identifying a problem.”


The rise of bad bots

Bots play an important role in the daily running of the internet. They’re responsible for trawling through the web and automating more mundane tasks at speed. Although they have their uses, some people fear that they’re getting out of control and are having a negative impact on social media.

Rami Essaid, CEO at bot mitigation and API security company Distil Networks, explains that they can be used to spread negative opinions and views online. In particular, he points out to the UK Referendum and how bots were used to influence the voters - not always in the most pleasant ways.

“In social media, the impact from bots can be felt in negative ways too. It’s surprisingly easy to create programming scripts that attempt to manipulate online polls and try to sway public opinion. Britain’s June 23 referendum on European membership had its share of bot activity on social,” he says.

“Of the nearly 314,000 accounts that tweeted one way or the other about the referendum two weeks before the vote, researchers found that 15 per cent were heavily or entirely automated. This reality is real to someone; whatever the source, these trends are then increased by orders of magnitude that are due to bot activity.

“Instead of an opinion being held by one person with one social media account, bots automate the spread of that opinion and simulate hundreds or thousands of people supporting the same opinion. This illusion of support can sway the conversations that people have around opinions where the number of actual, real supporters is low.”


Preventive methods

Online trolling may be a major problem, but that’s not to say that things aren’t being done to prevent it from getting out of hand even further. You can get new software and technology that’s capable of detecting and censoring abuse found on the internet. Smoothwall is one of the companies working in this area.

Claire Stead, Online Safety Expert at Smoothwall, says preventive systems are growing in popularity and are being used in scenarios such as education. However, for them to be a success, she argues that regulators and governments bodies need to consider their impact on the freedom of speech movement.

“The technology for a pre-crime detection system already exists as we are seeing it being used in regulated industries such as schools for example. It is used to monitor platforms that children use in the schools network, that can detect issues such as radicalisation, online grooming and abuse,” she says.

“This kind of technology can be applied for pre-crime detection. However the key will be who is monitoring it, as it will be effectively monitoring the general public. This is where the issue of freedom of speech comes into play, because who should determine what is a crime and what is harmless?

“People have the right to share what they wish on social media. But as soon as we start considering law breaking, that is when there should be the justification for censorship and intervention and so it therefore needs the right body to regulate and monitor it.”

Cyberbullying is something that many people have experienced in some shape or form, regardless of their background. And although such online crime is constantly growing and becoming more complex, there are people out there working tirelessly to eradicate it.


Also read:
A SaaS-based bullying report app for schools and workplaces
IT Careers: Success vs. bullying
Bullied at work: What can you do?
Privacy vs. terrorism: Is social media clampdown even possible?