The Internet is no angel, and neither is Twitter. While the social media website has provided an excellent means of communication, being a platform that brings you closer to the things you care about, it is no exception to the general hostility woven into online communications. Learn all about Twitter Safety.

At the heart of Twitter are small bursts of information called tweets. Each Tweet is 140 characters long. You can also get links, see photos, videos, and news stories and participate in conversations — all directly in Tweets. Sounds fantastic if you’re trying to stay up to date with news, live events, or even follow up with your favourite Hollywood star. But as everything else on the Internet is, there’s no sunshine or rainbows. Harmful, offensive, and overall undesirable content can and does exist.

Important Statistics

It is not precise or clear how many Twitter users really are, reveals a report by Time magazine. The numbers range from somewhere between 200 million to 350 million Twitter accounts, although not all are active. Recent polls in the United States of America indicate that around 8 per cent of Americans own active Twitter accounts, compared to 51% of Americans who use the rival social network, Facebook. Extrapolating from this data, there are probably around 20 to 25 million Americans who are active on Twitter; however, when it goes public, as it inevitably will, we will probably have more accurate numbers.

According to a new study, about 15,000 bullying-related tweets are posted every day, meaning more than 100,000 nasty messages suffocate the social network every single week. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin in Madison conducted research aiming at training a computer to analyze Twitter messages using an algorithm created to point out important words or symbols that may indicate bullying.

In 2011, during the time of this study, 250 million public tweets were being sent daily. “In machine learning,” says Zhu, one of the researchers, “the algorithm reads each tweet as a short text document, and it goes about analyzing the word used to find the important words that mark bullying events.” Some examples of these words were “mean,” “kicked,” “called,” and “suicide, words that might indicate mean or bullying-related content.

What does Twitter think of inflammatory content that circulates user accounts?

“You understand that by using Twitter, you may be exposed to content that might be offensive, harmful, inaccurate or otherwise inappropriate, or in some cases, postings that have been mislabeled or are otherwise deceptive.” Twitter is not saying, however, that you agree to be bullied. On the contrary, Twitter expressly forbids bullying and related conduct that is often employed by bullies.

In its terms of service agreement, Twitter states that to use its platform and services, you must accept all their terms, and those terms make clear that Twitter itself does not want to get involved in disputes between account users. Users are allowed to post content, including potentially inflammatory content, provided they do not violate the Twitter Terms of Service and Rules.

Twitter does not screen content and they do not remove potentially offensive content unless such content is a violation of their Terms of Service. Twitter’s “Terms of Service” (TOS) agreement warns that exchanges can become unpleasant, or worse because Twitter wants to stay out of these problems. 

Twitter Significant Rules

In what concerns these rules, here are the most significant ones that attempt to control tactics that have been employed by bullies and abusive users to harass, annoy and damage targets:

Impersonation: You may not impersonate others through the Twitter service in a manner that does or is intended to mislead, confuse, or deceive others.

Trademark: Twitter reserves the right to reclaim usernames on behalf of businesses or individuals that hold legal claims or trademarks on those usernames. Accounts using business names and/or logos to mislead others may be permanently suspended.

Private information: You may not publish or post other people’s private and confidential information, such as credit card numbers, street addresses or Social Security/National Identity numbers, without their express authorization and permission.

Violence and Threats: You may not publish or post direct, specific threats of violence against others.

Copyright: Twitter will respond to clear and complete notices of alleged copyright infringement. Their copyright procedures are set forth in the Terms of Service.

Unlawful Use: You may not use Twitter’s service for any unlawful purposes or in furtherance of illegal activities. International users agree to comply with all local laws regarding online conduct and acceptable content.

Misuse of Twitter Badges: You may not use badges, such as but not limited to the Promoted or Verified Twitter badge, unless provided by Twitter. Accounts using these badges as part of profile photos, header photos, background images, or in a way that falsely implies affiliation with Twitter may be suspended.

“All Content, whether publicly posted or privately transmitted, is the sole responsibility of the person who originated such Content. We may not monitor or control the Content posted via the Services and, we cannot take responsibility for such Content. Any use or reliance on any Content or materials posted via the Services or obtained by you through the Services is at your own risk.”

Twitter Rules

This is a rather crucial disclaimer that Twitter makes, trying its best to make it clear that it does not and shall not intervene in disputes, and that in case anything occurs that annoys a specific user, it has to have clearly violated the Terms of Service to be worthy of a report or a ticket submitted to the Twitter system. Below is further clarification:

“We do not endorse, support, represent or guarantee the completeness, truthfulness, accuracy, or reliability of any Content or communications posted via the Services or endorse any opinions expressed via the Services. You understand that by using the Services, you may be exposed to Content that might be offensive, harmful, inaccurate or otherwise inappropriate, or in some cases, postings that have been mislabelled or are otherwise deceptive.”

“Under no circumstances will Twitter be liable in any way for any Content, including, but not limited to, any errors or omissions in any Content, or any loss or damage of any kind incurred as a result of the use of any Content posted, emailed, transmitted or otherwise made available via the Services or broadcast elsewhere.”

Twitter Rules

The rules also state that “Twitter strives to protect its users from abuse. Technical abuse and user abuse are not tolerated and will result in permanent suspension.” While the meaning of “technical abuse” is spelt out, the meaning of “user abuse” is rather vague, but could arguably be said to fall within the standards that are set forth in sections of the Terms of Service material addressing “Safety: Abusive Users”.

Regarding Child Sexual Abuse

Twitter says, “We do not tolerate child sexual exploitation on Twitter. When we are made aware of links to images of or content promoting child sexual exploitation they will be removed from the site without further notice and reported to The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (“NCMEC”); we permanently suspend accounts promoting or containing updates with links to child sexual exploitation.”

Being Safe on Twitter: What Can You Do?

When discussing “Safety: Abusive Users,” Twitter rhetorically asks: “What can you do?” Their response is in bold letters: “Don’t be a bully.” More specifically, the material explains, “You may encounter people on Twitter who you don’t like or who say things that you disagree with or find offensive. Please remain courteous, even if the other people are not.  Retaliation can reinforce bad behaviour and only encourages bullies. Don’t forward or re-Tweet bullying or mean messages. Remember that the things you say can be very hurtful to other people, even if you think it’s a joke. Don’t turn into a bully yourself.”

Abusive behaviour encompasses many different situations–for example, having an argument with someone else on Twitter or discovering that someone you’re following is Tweeting things you find very offensive.

Under the “Following Rules and Best Practices” tab, Twitter explicitly states that it does not wish to become “a less-nice place to hang out.” Therefore, it provides safety tips for teachers and parents, as well as teenagers and general users of all ages, on protecting themselves and watching out for the content they share via Twitter through “Help” pages that include tips on how to stay in control, by keeping their account secure, protecting their personal information, protecting their online photos, and considering the context of offensive content.

In addition, it suggests tips on how to deal with online relationships, online conflict, abusive behaviour, and self-harm and suicide. Twitter instructs users on how to deal with bullies or people whom they would rather not have bothering them or following their activities, providing advice and recommendations.

  1. Consider the context: Individual Tweets can be confusing when read outside of their intended context. Do you know the whole story behind the Tweet?
  2. Think before you Tweet: When you find yourself in a dispute, stop and think about what effect your next Tweet might have. In these moments, ask yourself, “Is this worth it?” or “What do I gain if I continue to engage in this conflict?” While this is much easier said than done, acknowledging harassment by fighting fire with fire can reinforce bad behaviour and may encourage the other person to continue their aggressive behaviour.
  3. Block and ignore: When you receive unwanted communication from another Twitter user, it is recommended that you block the user and end any communication. Specifically, this will prevent that person from following or replying to you. Abusive users often lose interest once they realize that you will not respond.
  4. Know the rules and policies: Twitter only removes profiles violating the Twitter Rules and Terms of Service.  Please remember that Twitter is a communications platform rather than a content provider, we do not mediate disputes between users.
  5. Set Your Account to be ‘Protected’:  This helps a lot. If you want privacy you can set your account to be protected so that the public can’t view your tweets unless they follow you and you allow them to see your tweets. By protecting your Twitter account, you get to choose who is able to view your tweets. Keeping bullies away.
  6. Reporter to @twitter: Twitter takes this very seriously as well. They have a harassment and violent policy page. You can report to twitter when those bullies have gone too far.

Twitter Safety: On Blocking and Ignoring

“If you are receiving unwanted communications from a bully,” or for that matter anyone who contacts you via Twitter and with whom you do not wish to associate, Twitter recommends “that you block the user and end any communication. Ending communication with bullies [and others] shows them that you are not willing to engage with them, and often they lose interest. It also demonstrates to others that you are not involved in similar behaviour and that you are acting against bullying.”

Twitter explains that blocking prevents a person “from following you or replying to you, and can minimize any incentives [for the bully] to persist in their conduct,” and Twitter provides a help page on blocking, which instructs users as to how to block other users. Twitter acknowledges “that bullying is a serious issue” and claims that this is the reason that it has “provided all users with the ability to block other users.” There is, however, a problem with Twitter’s solution to bullying:  It does not stop the anonymous or pseudonymous bully from continuing attacks against his or her target via Twitter.

While you can, for example, block @thebully (a fictional Twitter name used as an example) from following you, as Twitter notes in its FAQ, you should know that it will not prevent this person from creating a new account with which to follow and harass you. Nor does blocking a user such as @iamabully from sending you messages by having someone whom you do not block retweet a mention of you, which will then appear in the “Mentions” section of your Twitter account.  Indeed, we understand that these are standard ploys and tactics by Twitter bullies and abusers who seek to continue to harass their targets, even after they have been blocked.

Twitter Safety: Protected Twitter Accounts

In addition, there is another tool that is available to shield your account: A protected account. But using such an account greatly restricts your ability to serendipitously encounter or discover other users with similar interests on Twitter. And that is a significant sacrifice, as Twitter followers tend to follow others with like interests and beliefs. A protected account, however, restricts followers to only those you approve.

To create a protected account on Twitter, you must alter the settings for your account, where you are given the option of choosing a “Public” or a “Protected” account.  If you check “Protected,” then anyone who wishes to follow you will have to request your consent to do so; your tweets can only be viewed by your approved followers, who cannot retweet you; and your protected tweets will not appear in a Twitter search. You have, in effect, created a private and closed network of followers.

But even in this protected (and restricting) status, the clever bully can continue to harass, for even with a protected account you will still receive “Mentions” when @YourTwitterName is included by others.  It takes very little effort by the bully to enlist others to pass on such material, for sadly, there are Twitter users who encourage bullying.  Such users may even support bullies by retweeting and encouraging them, even when they don’t directly bully themselves. (These facilitators may not understand that should their bully engage in criminal conduct, they too could become criminally liable. Or, if the bully is named in a civil lawsuit, they could be named as well.)

Twitter Safety: Account privacy

As Justia columnist and former counsel to the president, John Dean writes, “Twitter will NOT tell you what they know about a person who is bullying or harassing you.  This information is protected by Twitter’s Privacy Policy.  Indeed, many bullies turn on their targets and claim that they are actually the victims. As I mentioned in Part One, bullies are very clever and good at pointing the figure at others to escape responsibility.

Twitter account privacy is not, however, ironclad. Twitter users agree, under the TOS, that there are circumstances under which Twitter can release to others what it knows about you, under the following rather vague clause: “Law and Harm: We may preserve or disclose your information if we believe that it is reasonably necessary to comply with a law, regulation or legal request; to protect the safety of any person; to address fraud, security or technical issues; or to protect Twitter’s rights or property.”

Suffice it to say, as Twitter sees it, its willingness to assist is necessarily limited.  Thus, users may need to look to other alternatives.”

Twitter Safety: Reporting Abusers

Nonetheless, Twitter does provide a means to report abusive behaviour by submitting a Support ticket, where you can report such misconduct as the posting of your private information, the stealing of your Tweets, the posting of offensive content, the sending of abusive messages or the making of violent threats.  (They also have advisory material for law enforcement, should you need to call the police to protect yourself.)

Reporting the situation to Twitter may succeed in getting our hypothetical bullying user @iamabully suspended from Twitter, but if @thebully is hell-bent on harassing you, he or she will open another Twitter account and may return to harass you with new vigour or do so via Mentions.  Frankly, I do not believe that anyone should expect Twitter to resolve his or her problem with a bully.  If law enforcement becomes involved, Twitter will be responsive to them.  But with potentially millions of disputes between its users, Twitter cannot practicably become involved in most situations of bullying or other abusive behaviour.

Some believe that, unfortunately, Twitter’s abuse policy is pretty lacking. Their Terms of Service do not directly address abuse, but the official Twitter rules have a specific section for harassment and violent threats. What the organization needs is a designated @abuse account, and ideally a checks-and-balances system for registration.

“Because Twitter’s recommendations and remedies are woefully incomplete for dealing with someone who is hell-bent on being a bully or a persistently and consistently overly aggressive pest, you will likely have to go outside Twitter to resolve the problem. Increasing numbers of attorneys and private investigators are dealing with cyberbullying, and learning how to effectively deal with this anti-social behaviour.”