Tackling Twitter Abuse and the value of Geolocation

So, while we’re waiting for Twitter to update its systems with a ‘report abuse’* button let’s give some thought to a very simple and non-intrusive change that Twitter could easily make to its platform that would help take the edge off some of the recent issue with rape and other threats that have directed towards women.

* I’m not going to comment on the ‘report abuse’ button thing directly. Suffice to say that any such system is only ever going to be as good as the amount of time, effort and money that Twitter choose to put into dealing with reports of abusive behaviour, particularly as such systems are themselves, and by definition, wide open to abuse by people who think that mere butthurt is sufficient grounds to demand that other people’s Twitter accounts should be summarily shut down.

Over the last 15 years or so, I’ve actually moderated several online forums and can tell you first hand that dealing with other’s people butthurt and over-inflated sense of their own importance is an absolutely fucking thankless task that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

When I decided to start blogging back in 2005, one of the first and most important decisions I took was to self-host my own blog rather than sign up to a pre-packaged blogging system like Blogger, and one of the key reasons that I took that decision was because by self-hosting I would gain access to technical information about my blog and its visitors, particularly IP address information, that the pre-packaged platforms routinely deny to their users.

As someone who’s not exactly known for shying away from controversial subjects – and someone who’s been in his fair share of serious flame wars over the years – that information makes a hell of difference, especially when you run into the kind of moron who thinks it’s okay to make threats against either yourself or, in some cases, against family members or friends that you may have mentioned in passing at some point.

For me, the value in having access to this information has nothing much to do with reporting people to the authorities – I’ve never yet had an issue arise that merited that kind of response – rather the value lies in the fact that an IP address can be very quickly used to assess the potential severity of a threat using simple network tools such as Traceroute and WHOIS. Put simply, if someone threatens to fire-bomb my home and their IP address traces back to an Internet Service Provider based in Kentucky then it’s a pretty safe bet that the asshole on the other end of threat is not going to be undertaking the 8,000 mile round trip necessary to make good on that threat, all of which saves me the bother of having to concerned about absolutely every idiot who runs off their mouth in my direction.

Ultimately, it means that when it comes to dealing with abusive or threatening comments – and I do get them from time to time – I’m very much in control of the situation and can chose how best to respond to it.

Now, the problem that women face on Twitter is not just the fact that there are idiots out there who think it acceptable to threaten them with violence and/rape but also the fact that, because Twitter doesn’t disclose the IP addresses from which tweets are sent, women who find themselves on receiving end of such threats have no way of assessing just exactly how serious or realistic such a threat might be.  In some cases you might get lucky and find that the morn who made the threat has put something in their Twitter profile or tweeting something that provides a few clues to their general location but if not then what you’re faced with is a situation in which you’ve no way of knowing whether the guy who’s sound off about raping you is sat in his bedroom several thousand miles away or sitting in a branch of MacDonalds just down the road, and it doesn’t a genius to figure out that however unpleasant it might be to receive such a threat, it’s the not knowing whether or not you need to take it seriously that will really start to mess with women’s heads and make many of them feel extremely vulnerable.

So, irrespective of where Twitter choose to go with abuse reports, one very simple and practical measure it could introduce is a geolocation option which enables Twitter users to identify approximately where in the world a particular tweet was sent from. The technical aspects of such a system are actually relatively straightforward* as traces can be done either using the IP address from which a tweet is sent or, if a mobile phone is used and its GPS system is switched on and set to share its location, using GPS and the trace information does not need to be too exact – to the nearest town/city should be enough to allay any anxieties, or prompt women to take action, especially when abusive comments are coming in from overseas.

* Update – As Richard points out in comments, Twitter already collates this information, which is how it generates its regional trending lists, so the hard work is already done.

It’s not a perfect solution, of course – geolocation services can be readily defeated by using proxies to obfuscate or alter the apparent location from which tweets are sent – but let’s face it, a sizeable proportion of the idiots out there who think threatening and abusing women online is an acceptable mode of debate are hardly the sharpest pair of shears in the shed, so such a system is likely to deliver enough information to provide women either a bit of reassurance or a sense of urgency, depending on the feedback they get from the system, taking away much of the uncertainty surrounding abusive messages and the level of risk that might be associated with them.

It also, psychologically, gives women back a bit of the control that men who resort to online abuse and threats aim to deprive them of. If you know roughly where in the world an abusive or threatening tweet has come from then how you deal with it; either by blocking or muting the user, reporting it to Twitter, or even to the Police if it comes from close enough to home to make you feel that a threat could be genuine, becomes your choice, and when it comes to dealing with these kinds of situation, having that choice and the power to decide how best to deal with a situation can make a hell of difference to the way you feel in those situations and your ability to cope.

So while the addition of a ‘report abuse’ button may be an answer to the problem of online abuse/threats for some people, albeit one with a number of potential drawbacks, it’s not the only possible answer and we shouldn’t overlook the fact that it can often be very simple things, like knowing roughly where in the world and abusing or threatening message originated, that can help many women – and men for that matter – to feel that they retain a bit of necessary and psychologically valuable control over their situation.

Information is, after all, power.

So, Twitter, how about putting in a geolocation option? You know it makes sense.

  • Richard Gadsden

    Twitter are already collecting this data (that’s how the regional trending topics work) so they’ve already done the hard bit.

  • But is this not something that could be easily navigated past by anyone with malicious intent and the nous to act upon it?

    • unity_ministry

      As I point in the OP it’s not a perfect solution, nor is it intended to be one.

      Yes, it can be circumvented but only with some degree of effort and the amount of effort (and technical knowledge) required will vary considerably depending on the platform used to tweet.

      The easiest option is to use Twitter’s website through a web based proxy, but the price for that is often slow response times and flaky operation which is a lot of hassle to put up with for to fire off a bit drive-by abuse.

      If you use any kind of twitter client, especially on a mobile phone, then the situation becomes more complex and it take a lot more effort to set up a proxy system – far too much effort for most people.

      So yes, it certainly won’t do much to help if you managed to pick a fight with 4chan, but for most of the casual abuse that’s flying around it should be reasonably effective simply because most of the idiots firing off the abuse are unlikely to go to the effort of using proxies.

      • Yes, I’d agree with all of that. I guess that’s why I’d wonder how it would give anyone any comfort that there is no genuine threat. The idiot who throws out abuse from his easily-traceable mobile isn’t the guy I’d be worried about.. so knowing where he is isn’t going to make me feel safer.

        (Plus, as an aside, an ‘unintended consequence’ of making geographic information compulsorily available on a platform as big as twitter would be an increased appetite outside of 4chan for ways to circumnavigate it. My brother has all the IT-nous of a stapler, but soon worked out proxies when he moved abroad and wanted to use Dad’s ‘Sky Go’ account.)

        So if we’ve got a downside to the idea (say, the privacy impact on those of us able to use twitter and our brains at the same time.. and there are, quite literally, several of us) then I wonder if there’s much upside beyond a fleeting and superficial comfort taken from the thought that a threat *might* have come from Kentucky?