New Efforts to Curb Harassment Online Suggest that Web Culture is Changing

Last week another shift in the balance of web freedom versus responsibility occurred.

The world wide web is not that old, and it is going through growing pains. One of the greatest things about this medium has been its ability to let people reach out and find others like themselves, across the world. Another is the ability to experiment with new identities, or to participate in activities anonymously.

Of course, people being people, some people abuse this great gift. The question has been how to balance the negative activities of the extremes versus the value of anonymity and expression to everyone else. This is a moving target as the internet community matures and grows to encompass nearly everyone.

A couple years ago we touched on this problem. At the time it seemed that we weren’t really addressing the problem of harassment via Twitter and other platforms. This harassment is sometimes severe, including threats of rape and death, and are often targeted at women who take strong positions publicly. How to address this harassment without creating an overly restrictive environment?

Now, nearly two years later, it seems clear that we can’t have nice things. Recent scandals include the so-called gamergate which went from being a few gamers with a grievance over how games are marketed and reviewed to a misogynist campaign full of hatred and threats against women.

Since gamergate it has become clearer that allowing hateful trolls to attack female voices is not acceptable. Using free speech as a shield while silencing others with threats is a contradiction.

Last week may have been a big turning point. Reddit, one of the biggest online communities and a major advocate of internet freedom changed its rules to combat the problem.

Twitter, which is the channel through which much of the worst harassment has passed, had already started cracking down. However, Twitter has been opaque about what they are actually doing, and some feel that it may not be that effective. Twitter did allow a small research group to collect data on online harassment with a user-reporting tool. This tool allowed victims of abuse to report the attacks, but also allowed others to report attacks on these victims.

Reddit’s approach is a little more up-front. Their new policy relies on users reporting abuse. The announcement immediately triggered a debate among Reddit users, some of whom called the policy vague and others who consider it unnecessary. However, as Reddit surveyed over 15,000 users before launching this policy, it’s unlikely they will reverse themselves because of a few angry comments.

Will any of this work? If the past is any guide, not at first. The initial attempts will be full of gaps that users will quickly exploit, or will be over-restrictive and cause a short-term backlash. But it seems that the momentum has changed, and these major platforms are going to continue to work to reign in this growing problem. Change is possible, one former cesspool of misogyny and racism was the xBox Live platform used for online games such as Halo. Another was YouTube comments, which were practically unreadable. Both have been significantly cleaned up over time.