It has been declared that Twitter has an abuse problem. Whether it was the Milo and Leslie Jones fiasco, the scathing BuzzFeed article or the unveiling of the platform’s own Quality Filter, many are blue in the face from yelling at the platform.
However, blaming Twitter is a narrow-minded argument and a misunderstanding of the true problem at hand. By no means is Twitter faultless, as there is certainly room to grow by solidifying a stance between free speech and censorship. This is a difficult process that platforms such as Facebook and YouTube have gone through before, and still are experiencing. No network is immune, and no one has discovered the perfect balance, even if it existed.
Twitter did not give birth to cyberbullying, nor will they abolish it. Online abuse is omnipresent and not exclusive to one platform over another. It’s a behavior that starts with a mentality, not a platform. Attacking Twitter for its policing or lack thereof does not attack the root of the problem. Even if Twitter ceased to exist tomorrow, online harassment will not expire.
A bully is a bully and a troll is a troll, no matter where you go online. For as long as online mass communication has existed, from the early days of AOL chat rooms, online bullying has existed. So, in order to effectively address the issue of cyberbullying, one must not only question the environments that yield such behaviors, but examine how and why the behavior exists in the first place.
The ability to hide behind not only a screen, and often an unidentifiable name or avatar, unquestionably leaves online harassment to prevail. Whether one’s absolutely anonymous or not, the reduction of faceless communication disallows immediate, raw or physical reactions and consequences.
Do we favor identifiable and culpable communication or anonymous and immune expression?
Infamously stated, “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” While the comic was originally printed in The New Yorker in July 1993, the claim never rang more true than it does today. You are faceless online. While publications recently touted a study that found “trolls are even more hostile when they’re using their real names,” the support in favor of the counter argument “anonymity promotes online bullying” is far more prevalent, substantial and logical.
With this in mind, one possible counteraction to Twitter’s predicament would be to restore the faces from faceless communication. When verification and accountability exists, it can be presumed that harmful behaviors such as abuse and trolling will curb. However, is this a step in the right direction?
Twitter’s problem is very real indeed, but the implications and possible solutions for this platform are apart of a much larger discussion pertaining to all human-connected developments. Going forward, we need to ask which directions we’d first like to head in. As Jonathan Zittrain, the co-founder of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, states in Werner Herzog’s film Lo and Behold, “We can design systems that are really anonymous or that are utterly identifiable down to the person, and it’s time for us to think about what contexts we’d want to support what.”
In a context like Twitter’s, do we favor identifiable and culpable communication or anonymous and immune expression… even if that enables trolling and bullying?
While promoting his latest film, Lo and Behold, Werner Herzog claimed, “The internet is not good or evil, or dark or light-hearted, it’s humans.” This resonates quite well with Twitter. What we end up imagining, producing and enabling online ultimately materializes the reflection of the human collection.
So at the end of the day when we point at a platform like Twitter, which many believe should be held responsible for cyberbullying, we’re accusing inherently innocent defendants. In reality, we should be pointing at ourselves.