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WTF Does It Take To Stop Sexual Harassment Online?

Twitter’s live-streaming video platform Periscope lets users ban trolls in real-time. Will other platforms follow?

“Take ur shirt off.” I spent all night on Periscope, Twitter’s live-streaming video platform, and this was by far the most frequent comment made to women. There was “Show your boobs,” too. “Turn around.” Basically, if you can come up with a vaguely threatening way to demean a woman, a ’Scoper somewhere has already said it. One particularly crass user asked a 15-year-old to verify her age by letting him count the “tree rings” around her vagina.

Periscope is aware that it has a major problem with online bullying, and this week, the company announced that it’s taking action via moderation-by-jury. When users report an abusive comment, an instantaneous panel of five randomly-selected viewers are asked to declare it either “abuse,” “looks OK,” or “not sure.” If a majority of voters find the post offensive, the commenter is restricted from chatting for a minute. If it happens again, they’re banned from the broadcast. No professional moderator or admin is asked to step in. The whole process is over in seconds.

This immediacy is why I stayed up so late. Unlike actual jury duty, which has always seemed like a drag to me, shutting down trolls turned out to be the kind of civic duty I could get behind—oddly satisfying and addictive. Frankly, I can’t imagine Periscope working any other way. How can we expect a broadcaster to be responsible for policing her audience while she’s in the middle of entertaining them? No one wants to watch live video of someone grimacing and deleting.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]I weirdly support trolls. Criticism of all kinds keeps the bar higher… I'm also a woman and have been programmed by society to tolerate abusive behavior.[/quote]

I asked Sunny Lenarduzzi, a frequent Periscope user and professional expert on social media broadcasting, if she thought the new tool would make a difference. "Although I don't think this will solve the problem entirely, this is a necessary step in silencing the trolls,” she said. “I'm a huge fan of live streaming, but one of the reasons I'm not as active as I once was on Periscope is because the abusive and inappropriate comments got out of control. If Periscope wants to continue to maintain its role as a live-streaming pillar and compete against Facebook Live, this is a smart move."

Jessica Delfino, a comedian and avid Periscope broadcaster, had mixed feelings. “I weirdly support trolls,” she said. “Criticism of all kinds keeps the bar higher and makes people work harder. I'm also a woman and have been programmed by society to tolerate abusive behavior, especially from men. I appreciate free speech and will do almost anything to protect it. On the other side of this, trolls suck. No one invites trolls to parties.”

To say social media abuse is rampant is a gross understatement. Over 40 percent of internet users have been directly harassed, according to a 2014 Pew Research poll. And 2016 has seen a flurry of users deleting Twitter accounts because of the platform’s reluctance to actively control harassment and hate speech. “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls,” said the company’s former CEO Dick Costolo back in January 2015. Yet Twitter has always maintained a hardline anti-censorship stance. Over the last 17 months, Twitter has made a lot of noise but taken little action other than providing a taxonomy for different types of abuse and harassment. They’ve clarified their rules (homophobic speech is now banned, for example), but users still complain about trolls coordinating attacks that make it nearly impossible to use the platform without being bullied. Hateful posts can stay up for days.

Facebook and Instagram (which, you may recall, is owned by Facebook) depend on a blend of algorithms and user-based reporting to flag offensive comments. A global team individually reviews each reported post and has the power to ban users who repeatedly violate their standards. But because Facebook requires users to post under their “real name,” the platform assumes users will behave themselves, recommending they handle things by unfriending and banning abusers, or in instances of serious threats and violence, refer cases to law enforcement.

Earlier this week, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft signed a joint agreement with the European Union pledging that hate speech and abuse would be “expeditiously reviewed by online intermediates and social media platforms, upon receipt of a valid notification, in an appropriate time-frame.” In English, this means “less than 24 hours,” which can still feel like an eternity to a victim under fire.

Periscope’s trial-by-viewers adds an extra layer of vindication by silencing abuse in the moment, rather than waiting for “professionals” to take action after the damage is already done. The approach may not be able to prevent tragedies like the one that occurred last month, when a Periscope broadcaster in France streamed her own suicide amid a barrage of hurtful jokes and outright harrassment, but at least there’s potential to block abusive interactions before they go too far.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]I appreciate free speech and will do almost anything to protect it. On the other side of this, trolls suck. No one invites trolls to parties.[/quote]

Periscope’s success depends on broadcasters who feel comfortable streaming live video that’s totally raw—sans the emotional and visual filters that are the bread and butter of certain other social platforms. Fear of harassment is the enemy of openness, and I’m glad Periscope is trying something new to keep it from happening.

Still, content moderation can’t always stop a mob with a mission.

The last Periscope broadcast I watched starred a female Hillary Clinton supporter who, in the middle of hot-taking the presidential candidate’s use of a private email server, was overwhelmed by a tidal wave of hate. Trolls may not get invited to parties, but they sure know to mobilize. The onslaught was no match for the new tool—I flagged as fast as I could, but sexually degrading comments continued to pop up, looking like they’d been branded onto the woman’s face.

I was tired of hate winning out. My thumbs were sore. So I did the only surefire thing I could think of to avoid encountering further abuse: I closed the app and turned off my phone.

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