Twitter has responded to pressure from users to improve how the social network deals with abusive messages, in the wake of feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez and MP Stella Creasy both being threatened with rape.

Twitter
Twitter responds to abusive tweets, saying it is listening and is not blind to the problem. (Credit: Reuters)

Twitter's move comes in response to an online petition asking for a change in the way the service handles abusive messages, which attracted more than 65,000 signatures. In a blog post written by Twitter UK's senior director of trust and safety, Del Harvey, the service has said it will roll out the ability to report an individual tweet as abusive to all its apps, as well as through web browsers.

The service is already available on its iPhone app and on the mobile version of the Twitter website.

Harvey, in the blog post entitled "We hear You" acknowledges that some people use Twitter in abusive ways. He adds that Twitter sees 400 million tweets pass through its servers every day around the world and the "vast majority" are positive. "That said, we are not blind to the reality that there will always be people using Twitter in ways that are abusive and may harm others."

The company accepts that manually reviewing every tweet is impossible, but states that it uses both manual and automated systems to evaluate reports of users potentially violating its rules.

Direct, specific threats

Harvey explained: "These rules explicitly bar direct, specific threats of violence against others and use of our service for unlawful purposes, for which users may be suspended when reported."

Although no specific mention of Criado-Perez or Creasy is made, the post comes soon after Criado-Perez suffered a weekend of constant abuse from Twitter users, who threatened to rape and kill her after she successfully campaigned to have Jane Austen added to the £10 note.

Walthamstow MP Creasy stood up to defend Criado-Perez, telling abusive users that she would report their tweets to the police, but they soon moved their attention to her and she also found herself inundated with threats of rape.

Scotland Yard confirmed that a 21-year-old man was arrested by police in the Manchester area on 28 July, on suspicion of harassment offences.

More practical

Addressing Twitter's systems for reporting abusive tweets, Harvey said the site will "strive to make it easier and more practical to file them. Three weeks ago, we rolled out the ability to file reports from an individual tweet on our iPhone app and the mobile version of our site, and we plan to bring this functionality to Android and desktop web users.

"We are constantly talking with our users, advocacy groups, and government officials to see how we can improve Twitter, and will continue to do so. Such feedback had always played an important role in the development of our service. We hope the public understand the balances we're trying to strike as we continue to work to make our systems and processes better."

Speaking to IBTimes UK, media lawyer Jonathan Lea says he thinks it is right that Twitter "is seen as a medium (like a phone line) rather than a publisher that would face liability itself."

Lea added that, while in "most cases" trolls sending abusive messages to users should simply be blocked and ignored, he thinks the social network should "issue a series of warnings for persistent abuse and...they should have a duty to not only suspend but also report the person behind the account to the police.

"Unless Twitter are proactive in this respect I can see they will get more and more pressure from the authorities who will then be more able to set the agenda which may lead to more restrictive laws on the use of such online mediums."

A petition set up on 28 July asking for Twitter to improve how it deals with complaints of abuse has gained 67,000 signatures and will soon reach its goal of 75,000.

It asks for Twitter to take "a zero tolerance policy on abuse", and learn "to tell the difference between abuse and defence...it's time Twitter started protecting its users."