One of the greatest things about social media is how it helps us to connect with more people in more places, and gain better access to the information and communities that interest us. While on the whole it is a great thing when people get to choose who they are connecting with, there is a huge dark side to the hyper-connectivity of social media.
Online harassment is one of the most vexing problems facing the internet today. Whether it’s hateful language posted in comment sections, trolling, stalking, or any kind of aggressive communication directed at someone via online channels, the major social media networks have inadvertently become a playground for harassers looking to unleash their vitriol, often on people they don’t even know. Meanwhile, social networks are trying to find the line between censorship and making sure their users feel safe online.
While it’s a well known fact that many internet users, especially women, are subjected to online harassment on a daily basis, the actual statistics can be shocking. The Guardian reported that “nearly half the 1,000 respondents in the research by the digital security firm Norton had experienced some form of abuse or harassment online. Among women under 30, the incidence was 76%.”
With such a high rate of incidence among users, one would think that the major social networks would be addressing this problem as a highest priority. After all, if users begin leaving these platforms because of the abuse they face there, that is a problem that a major network can’t ignore. In the case of Twitter, that may already be happening, as pundits repeatedly point out that the network’s failure to take policing online harassment seriously is the most serious problem the network faces. As Venture Beat reported recently, “[Twitter founder Jack] Dorsey admitted that Twitter has dropped the ball on the issue of harassment and bullying and said that the company is working on new technology solutions, as well as ensuring that policy and enforcement is consistent. He promised that more improvements are on the way.” Whether these improvements will be enough to stop users from abandoning the network remains to be seen.
While Twitter has gotten a lot of negative attention in regards to its response to online harassment, other networks are taking positive steps. Google just announced it will begin using AI software to fight against online harassment. Created by the Google subsidiary Jigsaw, the software “is aimed at blocking vitriolic or harmful statements online. The software uses machine learning to automatically catch abusive language, giving it an “attack score” of 100 (with 100 being extremely harmful and 0 being not at all harmful). The technology will first be tested out in the comments sections within The New York Times, and Wikipedia also plans on using it, though the company hasn’t said how, according to Wired.” Another major feature of the software is that it will eventually be open source, allowing other platforms that don’t necessarily have the resource to custom-build their own policing systems to implement it.
Meanwhile, Facebook is also struggling with the issue of policing online harassment while trying not to appear to be censoring users. A recent story in September went viral as it detailed an extensive story of harassment and Facebook’s failure to deal with it in a prompt manner.
One thing that all these networks must realize is while user happiness is hugely important, harassment also affects their bottom line in terms of ad revenue. If they lose users—or if their networks become so full of ugly language and hate speech that it begins to overshadow that more legitimate content—risk-averse advertisers will no longer see these platforms as a safe place to put their ad budgets. It remains to be seen if advertisers will respond to the commercial motive to deal with online harassment more diligently than the ethical imperative they owe to their users.