The microblogging site came under the spotlight this weekend when feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez and Labour MP Stella Creasy drew attention to the repeated rape and death threats they had received on the site. Criado-Perez, her supporters and other users began a #takebacktwitter and a #shoutingback Twitter campaign, demanding the site do more to tackle abusive tweets.
Criado-Perez took her complaint to Twitter’s manager of journalism and news Mark Luckie, but he temporarily blocked his account claiming he started to receive “abusive comments”, meaning she could no longer contact him. This led to some high-profile Twitter users, such as journalist Caitlin Moran, calling for a boycott of the site on 4 August to protest against the site’s inaction against abuse.
On 27 July Twitter UK general manager Tony Wang tweeted: “We take online abuse seriously and provide advice and guidance to our users here”. He then listed a support URL and added the company is testing ways to simplify the reporting of abuse, such as using the “Report Tweet” button on the Twitter iPhone app and mobile web.
Then, two days later (29 July), Twitter’s senior director of trust and safety Del Harvey posted a blog entitled “We hear you”, which detailed the systems Twitter uses to cut out tweets that violate its rules.
The following day (30 July) Harvey appeared on Channel 4 News to answer questions on the issue. Her performance, however, was criticised by studio panelists and Twitter users, with New Statesman deputy editor Helen Lewis remarking on air Harvey did not seem very “polished”.
Twitter’s “Buzz” – YouGov BrandIndex’s measure of the positive and negative things said about a brand, and a good indicator of public perception – has spiralled downwards since the backlash against the site began this weekend. The Buzz score has dropped 1.5 on Friday 25 July to -8.4 on Tuesday 30 July, a statistically significant decrease, according to YouGov’s measures.
In that same period consumers’ general “Impression” of the brand has dropped from -7.3 to -10.9, while its “Value” score has dropped from 5.9 to 0.2.
Twitter has “the hardest job of all social networks” to handle abuses because of the transitory nature of tweets, the public nature of the data and also because many users are anonymous, explains market intelligence firm IDC Europe research director Alys Woodward, but that is not an excuse to “sidestep” the issue.
She adds: “It is clear that in the UK at least, the Silicon Valley laissez faire approach has run its course. [Del Harvey mentioned on Channel 4 News] that Twitter ‘may appear like the Wild West’ – and with a social network, perception is all. If it appears like the Wild West, and the gunshots keep coming, then it is the Wild West and you need to send the deputies in.”
Mark Borkowski, founder of Borkowski PR, says it is time for Twitter to “get personal, rather than talking about algorithms”.
He says: “US tech companies do tend to think globally rather than local, which can mean they miss the nuances of local communications. The best US corporate comms teams – particularly in the film industry and media business – understand the sensitivities of local issues. You do have to invest in it. The media in the UK has a great appetite to stir these balls of confusion up and make them even worse for a brand.”
“But every crisis a brand faces is an opportunity to get it right. There is an opportunity to use the right vocabulary of the brand to control the issue. Don’t ignore it, don’t let it go away, listen before you speak in future, come up with a solid package of ideas, don’t overreact and demonstrate the ability to tackle this in a human manner.”
Francis Ingham, director general of the PRCA, says while Twitter’s response to protests from campaigners was “too slow” it was good to see it was openly responding to issues and acknowledged there had been failings. The brand now needs to present “a strong decisive front on Twitter abuse and show that it has turned over a new leaf”.
He advises: “Keep talking – the brand needs to own the story, rather than skulking around being the last to comment. They should be quick to publicise the fact that they have banned abusive people from using Twitter to show that they do not put up with such behaviour.”