Facebook leads the way against cyberbullying, but others need to follow
·MADHUMITA MURGIAHEAD OF TECHNOLOGY
19 JUNE 2016 • 4:23b www.telegrahp.co.uk
PMSocial networks need to practice proactive compassion CREDIT: ALAMY
This week Prince William joined the ranks of the tech-savvy royals when he attended Founders Forum, an invitation-only event for tech founders held at an 18th century mansion in the depths of Hertfordshire.
Surrounded by the heads of Google, Facebook and Twitter, the Duke of Cambridge didn’t choose to advocate for entrepreneurship or celebrate Britain’s role in the digital revolution – instead he picked a surprisingly buzzword-free topic usually avoided at self-congratulatory events like these: cyberbullying.
The Duke was speaking to an audience including influential tech entrepreneurs CREDIT: PA
The Prince , particularly since becoming a parent, and called on social media giants to tackle bullying more actively. As a parent, he said, he was appalled at the news of teenage suicides and eating disorders borne out of online cruelty.
If there’s any indication of how mainstream the issue has become, it’s this. Last year, BullyingUK saw calls relating to cyberbullying increase by 77pc over a 12-month period. In an online survey, BullyingUK also found that 43.5pc of respondents aged between 11 and 16 had been bullied via social networks.
And while children are most vulnerable, adults and celebrities are equally exposed. Earlier this month, Uber’s UK head Jo Bertram said she didn’t use Twitter anymore because of the torrential abuse she received from black cab drivers who have compared her to Jimmy Saville, and also said they wished she would get run over by a car.
Monica Lewinsky, in her electric Ted Talk about online shame, said that after her affair with President Bill Clinton became public, she almost lost her life to the “mobs of virtual stone-throwers” who publicly humiliated her for more than a decade.
The thing about online bullies is that they are faceless: on the web, gutless tormentors don’t have to face up to their victims as they would in a school playground or in an office. Instead, they hide behind anonymous usernames and disappearing messages, a virtual mob loath to get their hands dirty.
It’s time we brought some compassion to the internet, but whose responsibility is it?
The average person has five social media accounts, and we spend almost 30pc of our time online using these networks – about 1 hour and 40 minutes every day. Facebook is by far the largest online community, with 82pc of the world’s population, excluding China, having a Facebook account and 40pc using it regularly. Twitter has roughly 350m people signed up.
Their immense scale also means social networks have got a finger on the pulse of humanity – the perfect vantage point from which to help.
My opinion, like Prince William’s, is that no one is better placed to encourage compassion than social media companies – after all, their networks have facilitated this new social phenomenon through their very existence. And it's not good enough just to solve a crime after it's committed - tech companies must start to police their vast virtual domains more proactively.
Back in 2013, a study suggested Facebook was the worst network for teenage cyberbullying; 87pc of teens who reported cyber abuse said they were targeted on Facebook, while 20pc blamed Twitter.
Despite its smaller size, Twitter has a particularly dark side, with harassment and trolling driving away even celebrity users, including Stephen Fry and the Great British Bakeoff’s Sue Perkins. Some believe it's that the platform is bleeding users.
Its former chief executive, Dick Costolo, made a very frank apology on an internal forum last year, admitting that the microblogging service “suck(s) at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we've sucked at it for years”.
The bare minimum responsibility would be to provide a channel for users to report direct abuse, threats and bullying. Last year, Twitter addressed this by allowing third parties to flag abuse rather than waiting for victims to do it themselves. It also broadened the criteria by which it assessed threats.
For example, where previously it would have required a troll to explicitly state details of a threat – such as wanting to commit sexual violence at the person’s home – before it could act on it, it now acts on more generalised threats such as those of physical violence.
Last week, it also made it easier for users to block trolls effectively.
Starting today, we're making Block easier to help you control your Twitter experience. https://about.twitter.com/safety/three-tools-to-control-your-twitter-experience …pic.twitter.com/gCzkTwoglP
Facebook has been particularly driven in an effort to foster compassion within its vast network - one step forward from resolving complaints.
For example, take the "reporting" tool on Facebook that allows you to report a photo or comment that you want taken down. To make people engage directly with each other and resolve conflict, to communicate why the user wanted a post removed.
Human articulations such as "It’s embarrassing” increased the requests hugely. And of those requests, 85pc of the time, the person who posted the photo took it down or sent a reply, forcing bullies to talk directly to their victims.
Changing 'embarrassing' to 'it's embarassing' made engagement rise by 1.5 times
Reporting abuse is the bedrock of online safety, but large social networks have to move to a more proactive form of compassion.
The most cutting-edge technologies such as machine learning are being used to make these products more fun, engaging and useful, but they could equally be applied to making these spaces more inclusive and empathetic.
For instance, hateful speech should be filtered by abuse-spotting algorithms and removed before it has the chance to inflict pain. Behavioural algorithms might be able to learn from profiles who is more likely to be a troll or a harasser and flag them up to community officers.
This week, Facebook took a big step in this direction by rolling out its Suicide Prevention tools globally. The Compassion team worked with 50 partners, including the Samaritans in Britain, to provide mental health resources for those at risk of suicide or self-harm.
Facebook's suicide prevention tools
The tool allows third parties to report posts that seemed like distress signals. If Facebook’s large community monitoring team deems the reported post a cry for help, the person’s normal Facebook experience will be paused when they next log in.
Instead, they will get a message saying one of their friends thought they might be going through a tough time, and an offer to help. Resources shared include contact details of local helplines, self-help tips and reminders of friends who could help. The person who reported the post receives a set of support resources as well.
For the most part, social networks, like the internet itself, have been a unifying force, connecting everyone from angst-ridden teens to lonely grandparents around the world. Through them, we can engage with strangers, broadcast repressed ideas and ideologies, and record our lives for posterity.
But their immense scale also means social networks have got a finger on the pulse of humanity – the perfect vantage point from which to help. It's time they took their lead from the world's largest online community, and stepped up.==============================================
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