Twitter to simplify the reporting of abusive tweets, after outcry over rape threats

Following outrage in the U.K. over tweets containing threats of rape, the company says a feature designed to make it easier to report abusive tweets when using Twitter on the iPhone will be coming to other platforms.

Edward Moyer Senior Editor
Ed is a many-year veteran of the writing and editing world who enjoys taking sentences apart and putting them back together. He also likes making them from scratch. For nearly a quarter of a century, he's edited and written stories about various aspects of the technology world, from the US National Security Agency's controversial spying techniques to historic NASA space missions to 3D-printed works of fine art. Before that, he wrote about movies, musicians, artists and subcultures.
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Edward Moyer
4 min read
Screenshot by Edward Moyer/CNET

After an outcry in Britain over rape threats on Twitter, the company said a feature designed to make it easier to report abusive tweets when using Twitter on the iPhone would be coming to other platforms. And the recipient of those threats expressed approval but added that the service needs "to step up and take responsibility for what is tweeted on their site."

Earlier Saturday, an executive with Twitter UK said the service was testing ways to make abuse reporting simpler. Twitter UK General Manager Tony Wang sent a series of tweets saying that the service takes online abuse seriously and directing users to the company's report form. He also said, "we're testing ways to simplify reporting, e.g. within a Tweet by using the 'Report Tweet' button in our iPhone app and on mobile Web."

A Twitter representative subsequently told CNET that "the ability to report individual tweets for abuse is currently available on Twitter for iPhone, and we plan to bring this functionality to other platforms, including Android and the Web."

The tweets and the rep's statement appear to be a response to an outcry over rape threats received by Caroline Criado-Perez, a freelance journalist, feminist campaigner, and co-founder of a group that pushes for more women experts in the media.

As Britain's Observer newspaper reported earlier, Criado-Perez was subjected to a number of abusive tweets after she and others successfully campaigned to have novelist Jane Austen honored on England's ten-pound banknote (Austen will replace naturalist Charles Darwin in 2017).

The abusive tweets led to an online petition calling on Twitter to simplify the reporting of abuse:

"We need Twitter to recognize that its current reporting system is below required standards," reads the petition, which as of this writing had logged 10,000 signatures. "It currently requires users to search for details on how to report someone for abuse; a feature that should be available on each user's page."

Screenshot by Edward Moyer/CNET

In an e-mail Saturday, Criado-Perez told CNET she was pleased by Twitter executive Wang's tweets.

"I'm glad that they're looking into simplifying the report process," she wrote. "This is absolutely paramount. When you're under a sustained attack like I have been for the past 48 hours or so, you simply can't be expected to fill out forms, find the link for each tweet, and explain what is wrong with it. It needs to be a one-click automated process. Under the current system it would take me about a week to report the abuse."

The Observer article also mentioned the notion of making Twitter "responsible for any criminal threats posted on it," to which Criado-Perez responded, in her e-mail to CNET:

"I don't think it's realistic to make twitter criminally liable for the threats, but I do think they need to step up and take responsibility for what is tweeted on their site -- from which, let's not forget, they are making millions -- and take firm steps to eliminate it."

For Twitter's part, the statement from the company representative said, "we have rules which people agree to abide by when they sign up to Twitter. We will suspend accounts that once reported to us, are found to be in breach of our rules."

Criado-Perez also told us she thought law enforcement needed to go farther.

"In general, I think the police need to start taking this seriously," she wrote. "If we want freedom of speech, that means for women too -- and at the moment too many of them are being silenced just so a small proportion of abusive men can issue whatever rape threats they deem fit."

MPs weigh in
The flurry of abusive tweets also prompted tweets from two members of Parliament. Steve Rotheram, the Labor party's member of Parliament for Liverpool Walton, sent a pair of tweets saying the abuse wasn't "banter" and was instead potentially illegal. And Stella Creasy, Labor MP for Walthamstow, called on Twitter users to #takebacktwitter.

Creasy also penned an opinion piece on the situation for the Observer. The essay says this recent issue goes beyond the policies or response of any particular tech platform, and it suggests the Internet can be used as a tool for change -- pointing to an online project designed to expose sexism and get people talking about it. And, the piece says, this is everyone's problem.

We don't just need a strong response from those who profit from our custom as users of platforms such as Twitter or are there to enforce public order. Projects such as everydaysexism show how these platforms can help change this culture. Men react with surprise to the extent of passive-aggressive sexism exposed. Women express relief it's not just them who feel threatened.

That both [men and women] have stood up for Caroline show this isn't a "women's" issue. It's a human rights issue.