Police chiefs are calling on users of online social networking sites to be the “eyes and ears” of officers to help combat the menace of ‘trolls’ who bully or abuse via the web.
Police forces across the UK are investing more funds into making sure they are plugged into sites like Twitter and Facebook but their nature means they are having to rely on users to self-regulate or to alert the authorities to criminal behaviour.
Scobbie said at the “high end” detectives pro-actively policed the web when they were, for example, investigating sexual grooming. But it was important social network users took it upon themselves to take action against abusers. “If you come across somebody behaving irresponsibly the onus is on you to do something about that if you care about that space. In my experience of Twitter and Facebook there are a lot of very responsible people who will be the eyes and ears and report stuff.”
Scobbie said more needed to be done to educate younger people, who will grow up as “internet natives”, to know how to protect themselves and each other on the net.
One interesting Twitter development is the work of users who take it upon themselves to patrol the site for examples of abusive messages and try to shame perpetrators by re-tweeting them.
Among them is @homophobes, which re-tweets examples of homophobic abuse to more than 8,000 followers. The abuser is likely to receive hundreds of messages challenging his or her comments.
In an e-mail exchange, the @homophobes account holder said: “I’ve discovered that many people don’t realise how public the web is. After I re-tweet people, they get defensive when people tweet to them. Many times, they’re surprised that people they don’t know are actually seeing their content. I’d estimate that roughly every one in five homophobes I re-tweet deletes their tweet.”
@homophobes said in most cases police did not need to monitor social networks. “Many of the concerns with bullying and harassment can be fixed by the social networks themselves. Social networks need to give people all the tools they need to eliminate harassment (blocking, reporting, privacy filters, etc), and most importantly, they need to craft community behaviour to create negative repercussions for unwanted behaviour.”
Another similar user is @alittleracist, who has written a client – an application – that searches for key words in the phrase “I’m not a racist but …” The account holder, who did not want to be named, looks at the posts highlighted by the client and re-tweets those he feel ought to be highlighted. He said: “I think police should probably stay out of social networks on the whole; it would be a full-time job to police it.”
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