Scale of online abuse swamps British police

Call for tech firms to be held accountable for harassment on their platforms

LONDON • For the past 16 months, Ms Suzanne Fernandes has been targeted online with racial abuse, pornography and death threats.

The two individuals she believes are responsible share many similarities: an interest in far-right politics, an ability to create multiple anonymous fake social media accounts and past convictions for extreme Internet harassment.

After making 126 reports to British police and numerous reports to Twitter and Facebook, Ms Fernandes feels defeated.

Both men, who cannot be named for legal reasons according to The Guardian, are known to law enforcement agencies and social media companies as convicted social media aggressors.

"It's been a constant, targeted, harassment campaign. There have been threats to kill and rape me. Various accounts sent tweets saying I had 10 days to live and images of extreme pornography were sent to me," said Ms Fernandes, a youth worker in London.

Revelations about the continued activities of the two men comes as the police in England and Wales admit that the scale of harassment, threats and abuse online threatens to overwhelm them, The Guardian said.

Now, Facebook, Twitter and Google are talking to grassroots organisations worldwide to organise a fightback on their platforms against online abuse, hate speech, misogyny and stalking, as the scale of abuse online continues to increase, according to the newspaper.

But the tech giants' attempts to foster a "counter-speech" movement have prompted questions about whether they are ducking their own responsibilities.

"Any moves by social media companies to support, encourage and empower individuals and groups to resist and counter abuse is very welcome," said Ms Sarah Green, interim director at the UK-based End Violence Against Women coalition.

But "we wouldn't say that harassment and assault of women in the street should simply be dealt with by victims fighting back", she added.

"We need to keep reviewing whether there is an adequate legal and policing response, and whether social media companies are doing enough through their own policies and practices towards perpetrators of abuse as well as victims."

Internet safety experts say that while the tech companies encourage their users to challenge abuse, they have an unacceptable level of secrecy shrouding the true extent of their internal efforts to counter abuse and intimidation on their platforms, The Guardian reported.

For one thing, Twitter, Google and Facebook have refused to publish information on the scale and type of reports they receive.

Facebook said it employs "several hundred" agents to deal with abuse reports for its community of 1.6 billion users.

Twitter said it has "more than 100 employees" operating round the clock for its user base of 320 million.

While Google refuses to disclose how many employees investigate reports of abuse, it said it is mulling including more information on the number of abuse reports and take-down requests it receives in its transparency reports.

Ms Fernandes believes social media companies need to be held legally accountable for abuse on their platforms.

"They should be prosecuted for aiding and abetting convicted trolls who have already been through the judicial system once," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 12, 2016, with the headline 'Scale of online abuse swamps British police'. Print Edition | Subscribe