Twitter's 'Report Abuse' Button Is a Good, But Small, First Step

After its users' rape threats were too hard to ignore and after the growing public outcry for an easy way to report those rape threats became louder than ever, Twitter announced that it finally was going to create a "Report Abuse" button to report abusive tweets. now the big question is: Is this going to do any good?

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After its users' rape threats became too hard to ignore and the public outcry for an easy way to report such threats grew increasingly louder, Twitter has announced that it will finally create a "Report Abuse" button. Now the big question is: Is this going to do any good?

On Monday night, Twitter's UK division announced that desktop and Android versions of the social platform would have "Report Abuse" buttons. Fast Company confirmed these tools would be available worldwide. The move was largely spurred by Caroline Criado-Perez, a British activist who lobbied (successfully) for the Bank of England to include Jane Austen on a British banknote, and the rape threats she received after this news was announced last week. Criado-Perez started getting "about 50 abusive tweets an hour for about 12 hours." The threats were so awful, they resulted in an arrest on Sunday.

As our Abby Ohlheiser explained, the current pathway to report abuse on Twitter is much more difficult than is constructing a 140-character tweet threatening to rape someone. The "Report Abuse" button will be more immediate. Its many advocates—an online petition has over 103,000 signatures and counting— are hoping that it spurs a quicker response time from the company regarding threatening tweets. 

But there are still a couple questions regarding Twitter's relationship with abusive tweets: why did it take so long?; is this button actually going to do any good? 

Craido-Perez isn't the first woman to be abused over Twitter or social media. Think of the abuse Steubenville's Jane Doe received before and after the football players' trial; there's also of Jose Canseco's idiotic tweeting earlier this summer, where he blasted out the name and phone number of a woman who was allegedly accusing him of rape, calling her a liar. Think, also, of Jezebel's Lindy West and the many rape threats directed at her when she appeared on television to talk about rape jokes, and writer/law student Xerlina Maxwell receiving rape threats after appearing on Fox News and saying that men need to be taught not to rape as much as women are taught how to avoid rape.

So why is Twitter only acting now, in the wake of the Criado-Perez's fiasco? Part of that has to do with how much attention Criado-Perez has (rightfully) drawn to the epidemic. In the past, the company had been criticized any time it took a step toward censorship (see: Twitter censorship outcry, 2012), even though rape threats sure sound like a direct violation of Twitter's Terms of Service, which state that "You may not publish or post direct, specific threats of violence against others." 

Most importantly, is the button actually going to be an improvement? As Martin Ashplant at Metro UK explains, many of the people tweeting out this awful stuff are doing it from fake accounts which are easy to set up. He writes:

[A]ssuming the unfortunate person you are abusing in fewer than 140 characters reports those tweets, what’s to stop you – if you were particularly intent on continuing that abuse and hadn’t revealed any traceable personal information – from setting up another account and starting the process again. And again. And again.

There are also logistical questions about the manpower needed to go over reported threats. As Ashplant reminds, this isn't a "Report Rape/Death Threat" button. It's an abuse button, which can itself be abused:

Where do we draw the line between what is genuine abuse and what is the sort of disagreement we see all the time on Twitter and elsewhere? And who makes that decision?

But at least this is a step in the right direction to curb some of Twitter's most vile trolls.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.