Opportunities for tackling abuse on social networks

As online abuse becomes an ever-greater issue for social media, the likes of Twitter are searching for potential solutions that can help control or lessen the fallout from this unwanted Internet phenomenon. The world’s social networking giants are therefore investing in potential technologies to do so, paving the way for sell businesses to clinch exits of abuse-resolution start-ups.

There was a time when social media platforms were only concerned with adding more users and generating more content in a bid to increase their penetration across the populace. However, as social networking has become a practical necessity for most Internet users, the focus for online majors such as Facebook and Twitter has become regulation and moderation of their environments. The goal is to alleviate bad press and its impact on key ad revenues from the frequent cases of harassment, cyberbullying and general abuse that has engulfed social media coverage in recent years.

Wide-ranging abuse on social media has become a much-debated phenomenon, a result of high Internet penetration that brings together all levels of society, easy access to mobile devices that allow instant communication with little thought, and a culture of disregard towards the feelings of strangers online.  The Pew Research Centre recorded in 2014 that 7.0% of surveyed Internet users in the USA experienced sustain harassment online.

Twitter, the US microblogging service, has become one of the most widely criticised platforms by campaign groups for not sufficiently controlling rampant cases of misogyny, racism and other discriminatory practices on its channels. User-generated platform Reddit has also been accused of nurturing underground communities with dark practices while Facebook has been pressured by governments to locate and block terrorist and antisocial groups, as well as report suspicious activity.

While moderating the vast number of users and content offers a capital-intensive challenge for social media players, a move they have long resisted, the ongoing bad publicity can undermine the key financial driver of social brands – advertising revenues. For example, Facebook saw some US$3.3 billion in ad revenues in the first quarter of 2015, amounting to over 90.0% of the company’s total revenues, according to its financial reports.

As a result, social media majors have started to invest resources into moderating user posts and groups more actively.

In late 2014, Twitter agreed a deal with the nonprofit organisation Women, Action, and the Media (WAM) to make the service safer for women. WAM will evaluate user reports and direct credible claims to Twitter’s moderators. In April 2015, the company also launched a tool that automatically removes abuse from timelines and stores the phone numbers of offenders.

Facebook has been less forthcoming in targeting abusers, partly because its members have to use real names and are therefore more vulnerable to official procedures by the police. The company has taken softer measures by financing anti-bullying media campaigns and hardening its abuse reporting guidelines.

However, there is clearly no quick fix to online abuse and social media platforms will not throw money at a problem they see as highly subjective, difficult to pin down and even potentially restrictive of free speech. Potential solutions likely lie in software that tracks abusive language or patterns of abuse by users, as well as community tools that allow fellow users to block or ban notorious offenders.


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