Skip to content
Surprising Science

What’s the Fairest, Most Effective Way to Fight Online Abuse?

Recent bouts of e-abuse against Zelda Williams and the website Jezebel have websites re-thinking policies for policing (and not policing) abusive comments online.

It’s just been one of those weeks, hasn’t it?

The passing of Robin Williams. The egregious situation in Ferguson. Continued turmoil in the Middle East (though thank goodness for the admittedly tenuous ceasefire in Gaza).

These subjects have all been and will continue to be discussed at length on social media and throughout the web. In doing so, we’ve seen some folks at their very best. Sadly, we’ve also seen many others at their worst.

For example, Robin Williams’ daughter Zelda was bullied off Twitter earlier this week when, as reported by Jezebel, a group of trolls tweeted images of a corpse they had photoshopped to resemble her late father. Williams understandably closed her social media accounts to avoid the abuse. It was a nasty situation but hardly an outlier. The access Twitter provides its users is both remarkable and frightening.

In response, Twitter announced yesterday that they’re going to “[expand their] policies regarding self-harm and private information, and [improve] support for family members of deceased users.”

The folks at Jezebel praised the announcement and explained why they eschew the opinion that folks online should just ignore abusive trolling:

“That is not the answer. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. It just gets worse because no one is there to speak up for the victims or demand accountability for those who are complicit. This is why we do it. This is why we push back against this shit. Because when we stand up and demand media companies to be accountable for the abuse that they allow in their products, change does happen.”

The Zelda Williams fiasco is the kind of story Jezebel always covers but you can see that there’s some extra gusto there because the site was recently embroiled in a similar e-abuse saga. Someone (or a group of someones) had been taking advantage of the site’s lax commenting system to spam graphic and disturbing GIFs, effectively ruining the conversation experience for the site’s many readers. As a subsidiary of parent company Gawker Media, Jezebel and its editors do not have the power to change the commenting policy nor could they ban lowlife IP addresses.

This isn’t a new problem for Jezebel and similar sites; female bloggers have long been targeting by online lowlifes who spam death/rape threats and gratuitous pornography. Ignoring it hasn’t worked; they’ve been ignoring it for the better part of a decade now. 

On Monday, Jezebel writers published an open letter to Gawker demanding something be done about the turmoil in the comments section. Yesterday it was announced that a pending comment system would be reintroduced to the site, allowing Jezebel editors the ability to approve comments for general readership while also allowing visitors the opportunity to foray into the depths of the “as of yet unapproved” section.

This solution works well for Jezebel but could hardly be administered on a platform like Twitter, where posts occur at a rate of thousands-per-second. That Twitter’s announcement after the Williams Fiasco was murkily vague leads you to believe they don’t yet have any specific ideas for how to quash abuse.

The issues here are two-fold. First, no reasonable amount of manpower could possibly sift through every tweet to weed out the very few that violate Twitter’s terms and conditions. Second, social media occurs in real-time, reacting to events as they happen. There’s no way to anticipate an influx of reaction tweets without also being able to tell the future. These obstacles make it difficult to police the platform so Twitter employees can only erase what has already been reported.

The solution to the Zelda Williams situation may be establishing a temporary “protected” status that certain users can apply or be nominated for when waves of abuse can be anticipated. If tagged by Twitter moderators as a “protected” user, special privileges would be made available to help avoid the sort of tweets Williams had flung at her. The trick is in allowing someone like Williams to be able to maintain healthy conversation with her good followers while silencing (and expelling) abusers. It’s difficult to envision a perfect solution but the above seems like a good place to start.

If you run or maintain a website that features publicized visitor feedback, do you feel it’s your responsibility to protect other users from trolls and abuse? The Jezebel writers certainly feel that way. I can understand if others think differently. While the graphic images Williams and Jezebel had to endure are never acceptable, a lot hinges on a potential comment regulator’s definition of “abuse.” This is not an issue that will be easily discussed nor solved.

As for Big Think (and specifically the Ideafeed), we do our best to delete spam messages from Disqus down below but aside from than that our comments sections are decidedly untroublesome. Know that your civility is much appreciated.

Read more at PC Mag and Jezebel

Photo credit: ra2studio / Shutterstock


Up Next