By Tim Hardy
News flash to male feminist allies: sometimes being an ally means you don’t get to control the tactics
— Jay Owens (@hautepop) July 27, 2013
As @hautepop and others have rightly pointed out, I need to very carefully check my privilege while commenting on the reactions to an utterly unacceptable campaign of misogynistic abuse.
I would however like to support the campaign for a prominent “report abuse” button on twitter.
As a technologist with strong libertarian beliefs, I am opposed to censorship.
This, however, is not censorship.
Allowing men to use threats of sexual violence against women in order to silence them and make them scared to speak out in public is the real censorship.
Rape threats should never be protected by free speech arguments – they’re a form of misogynistic control.
Twitter already contains the ability to report abuse but it is buried in the site far away from the main interface.
This is what is known as a design dark pattern: a type of user interface that’s been carefully crafted to guide users’ behaviour. Twitter make it hard for you to report abuse in part because reports need to be reviewed by people who have to be paid. Until it costs the company more in bad publicity than it saves them in wages, they’ll resist any change. Thankfully it looks as if the pressure on them is working.
Keeping it hard to report the abuse doesn’t stop the abuse – it just discourages people from reporting it and discourages women from speaking out online.
Many have found themselves thrown in the same category as abusers and blocked for politely questioning the prejudices of certain prominent media commentators. It is imperative that twitter do not allow automatic banning based on abuse reports. Spam reporting is already misused and there are understandable fears that a “report abuse” button could be so also.
A new button cannot become another way of defending privilege and silencing minority voices.
Instead it should and can be a change of user interface that encourages people to report truly abusive behaviour and reminds those tempted to be abusive that they’re only a click away from being reported.
It won’t stop the most determined abusers but it will reduce the volume.
Human review of reported tweets will prevent misuse and anyone tempted to just report people out of spite should read this first about the horrible consequences of wasting time like this: (Trigger warning for sexual abuse) The Real Story Behind Facebook Moderation and Your Petty Reports.
Technology is not the answer. What is needed is cultural and political change.
However, that takes time.
While we are working towards a better world, the design of technology interfaces can help guide the way people use that technology. A simple change like this could help shape an environment in which women can feel as entitled and confident to share their opinions as men.
Petitions are more often than not a waste of time but in this case signing can help increase the pressure on a company already feeling obliged to act. Please do so and take a stand against the abusive silencing of women: @twitter: Add A Report Abuse Button To Tweets
[Update: please see Responses to the Report Abuse Button and other Technical Suggestions.]