Recently Leslie Jones hit the trolls that had been harassing her with a spot-on takedown that can be essentially translated into the standard “stick and stones” cliche. Good for her, they certainly deserved it. But the ammunition against her trolls that she can bring to bear is not available to the vast majority of people. As she herself points out she is a proud, strong and successful woman that has taken more than her share of hits even considering the line of work that she is in. There is nothing they can say to really hurt her, her experiences have made her armor stronger than plate mail with a +10 vs. projectiles enchantment. They hacked and posted nude photos of her? So what? She doesn’t care! Unfortunately most people would. But this is not her fault, not by a long shot. Obviously this is the trolls fault. But they are being enabled by social media, and the fault with that lies with the social media companies themselves. These are private companies and they have no first amendment obligations and you have no first amendment right to tweet. And if you read their terms of service these companies are well aware of this fact.
Social media companies will tell you that they strive to respect an individuals right to freedom of speech. But jurisprudence has been clear that your right to free speech does not include the right to threaten others or publicly expose the private information of individuals that you have no right to. These companies paeans to freedom of speech are a red herring to cover their shirking of responsibility to shut down the trolls before their victims even know they exist. Before the internet if someone wanted to threaten you they had to say it to your face or at least call you, mail you a letter or send you a telegram. It was very hard or even impossible to do it anonymously and was far more work than banging away at a keyboard. Say it to my face and I know who you are, and can even punch you in your face if I’m so inclined. Unless you take great pains to disguise your voice you could be recognizable on the phone and on the second call there just may be a law enforcement trace attached to the line, tracking you down to ruin your day. Mailing a letter requires the effort of writing it down plus the cost of envelopes and stamps can really add up. DNA and handwriting analysis can prove you’re the jerk that sent it in a court of law. And I’m pretty sure the western union guy would go, “Yeah, I’m not sending that, that’s just wrong.”
Social media with their anonymous accounts and extensive reach has enabled AND protected trolls at an unprecedented scale. They’re adding “report abuse” buttons, but that doesn’t stop the message from getting through in the first place and setting up a new account to start trolling from again is trivial. They’ll tell you there isn’t much they can do to stop it, but these are the same companies that vacuum up your info and categorize you with sophisticated algorithms to target you with ads specific to your tastes. They won’t try harder because it’s an expensive, manual and disgusting process to regulate the worst of humanity. They’ll tell you they’re not in the business of picking winners and losers, but the truth is because their platforms enable the trolls they are picking winners, the trolls, and the rest of us are the losers that have to put up with them.
It is absolutely technically possible to flag tweets and other social media utterances using algorithmic logic for rejection or review. Yes, it will turn into an endless game of cat and mouse between the algorithm designers and the trolls. And yes there will be false positives or ambiguous calls to make that they will receive heaps of scorn for not allowing “free speech”. But there are always trade-offs, especially when the human condition is involved. How about instead of a “report abuse” button, have a button for the user that allows them to protest and plead their case to a chat based service rep if they feel their rejected tweet or other social media post is being unfairly maligned? A slight delay in getting a tweet with offensive but context appropriate language is a small price to pay for shutting down the trolls. They probably won’t be able to shut them down entirely but they should make it as hard on the trolls as possible. And this is just one idea, surely they can think of others.
The law is written that content providers are not responsible for the what the trolls say and do. This may have been logical and even necessary in the early days of the internet but the scourges of humanity have exploited this line of thinking. Major companies with extensive reach can and should be held accountable when their platforms are used as weapons. But I have no faith that a congress that can barely use e-mail will stand up to these companies and their campaign contributions for the average person. I guess if we want real change, we all have to start trolling our representatives. Let them know how it feels. But of course that is illegal. I imagine if you threaten the president or an officer of the government they will make every effort to track you down and punish you. A very privileged position to be in, to be sure, but that just isn’t going to work for the rest of us.