What Facebook isn’t telling us about its fight against online abuse

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Laura Bliss, Edge Hill University

Facebook has for the first time made available data on the scale of abusive comments posted to its site. This may have been done under the growing pressure by organisations for social media companies to be more transparent about online abuse, or to gain credibility after the Cambridge Analytica data scandal. Either way, the figures do not make for pleasurable reading.

In a six-month period from October 2017 to March 20178, 21m sexually explicit pictures, 3.5m graphically violent posts and 2.5m forms of hate speech were removed from its site. These figures help reveal some striking points.

As expected, the data indicates that the problem is getting worse. For instance, between January and March it was estimated that for every 10,000 messages online, between 22 and 27 contained graphic violence, up from 16 to 19 in the previous three months. This puts into sharp relief the fact that in the UK, prosecutions for online abuse have been decreasing, as demonstrated in the graph below.

Prosecutions for offensive messages. Based on figures obtained from the Ministry of Justice, Author provided

Yet what Facebook hasn’t told us is just as significant.

The social network has been under growing pressure to combat abuse on its site, in particular, the removal of terrorist propaganda after events such as the 2017 Westminster attack and Manchester Arena bombing. Here, the company has been proactive. Between January and March 2018, Facebook removed 1.9m messages encouraging terrorist propaganda, an increase of 800,000 comments compared to the previous three months. A total of 99.5% of these messages were located with the aid of advancing technology.

At first glance, it looks like Facebook has successfully developed software that can remove this content from its server. But Facebook hasn’t released figures showing how prevalent terrorist propaganda is on its site. So we really don’t know how successful the software is in this respect.

Removing violent posts

Facebook has also used technology to aid the removal of graphic violence from its site. Between the two three-month periods there was a 183% increase in the amount of posts removed that were labelled graphically violent. A total of 86% of these comments were flagged by a computer system.

But we also know that Facebook’s figures also show that up to 27 out of every 10,000 comments that made it past the detection technology contained graphic violence. That doesn’t sound like many but it’s worth considering the sheer number of total comments posted to the site by its more than 2 billion active users. One estimate suggests that 510,000 comments are posted every minute. If accurate, that would mean 1,982,880 violent comments are posted every 24 hours.

To make up for the failures in its detection software, Facebook, like other social networks, has for years relied on self-regulation, with users encouraged to report comments they believe should not be on the site. For example, between January and March 2018, Facebook removed 2.5m comments that were considered hate speech, yet only 950,000 (38%) of these messages had been flagged by its system. The other 62% were reported by users. This shows that Facebook’s technology is failing to adequately combat hate speech on its network, despite the growing concern that social networking sites are fuelling hate crime in the real world.

Thousands of abusive or violent messages are removed every day. Shutterstock

How many comments are reported?

This brings us to the other significant figure not included in the data released by Facebook: the total number of comments reported by users. As this is a fundamental mechanism in tackling online abuse, the amount of reports made to the company should be made publicly available. This will allow us to understand the full extent of abusive commentary made online, while making clear the total number of messages Facebook doesn’t remove from the site.

Facebook’s decision to release data exposing the scale of abuse on its site is a significant step forward. Twitter, by contrast, was asked for similar information but refused to release it, claiming it would be misleading. Clearly, not all comments flagged by users of social networking sites will breach its terms and conditions. But Twitter’s failure to release this information suggests the company is not willing to reveal the scale of abuse on its own site.

The ConversationHowever, even Facebook still has a long way to go to get to total transparency. Ideally, all social networking sites would release annual reports on how they are tackling abuse online. This would enable regulators and the public to hold the firms more directly to account for failures to remove online abuse from their servers.

Laura Bliss, PhD candidate in social media law, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Abuse of women MPs is not just a scandal – it’s a threat to democracy

Julia Gillard in Australia: another high-profile victim of online abuse. EPA

Laura Bliss, Edge Hill University

Following the intense election campaign of 2017, Labour shadow home secretary Diane Abbott spoke out about the racist and misogynistic abuse she received online.

Abbott revealed that she was subject to a litany of abuse on Twitter. In a recent Westminster Hall debate, she described the comments she received as “characteristically racist and sexist”.

Abbott’s experiences are not just depressing on a personal level – they pose a threat to democracy.

The BBC recently reported that a huge number of women MPs are experiencing abuse on social media. The problem was so bad during the 2017 election, with several MPs making complaints to the government, that Number 10 asked the Committee on Standards in Public Life to investigate the abuse of MPs during election campaigns.

Comments during the 2017 campaign included: “stab the c*nt”; “nazi witch” and “repatriate the b***h back to Africa”. The prime minister herself was called a “whore” by some Twitter users.

In Australia, the former prime minister Julia Gillard was subjected to twice as many abusive online comments as her Labor party rival Kevin Rudd between 2010 and 2014. Many of these statements were of a sexual nature.

Similarly, in the Democratic presidential primaries in the US, Hillary Clinton received almost twice as many abusive comments as her Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders.

These types of comments have started to become the norm for women politicians. Gillard has said:

As a woman in public life, the violent threats take on another sicking dimension. Threats of violent abuse, of rape, are far too common. A woman in public view may expect to receive them almost daily.

With so many people subject to online abuse, many are choosing to withdraw themselves from social media. In fact, a campaigner I recently interviewed about the online abuse she received was advised by the police to shut down her social media accounts.

But advising a woman to remove her online presence if she doesn’t want to be abused is akin to telling a woman that she needs to behave a certain way if she doesn’t want to be raped.

Rather than engaging in victim blaming, we should be tackling the behaviour of abusers. We need to be sending stronger messages to individuals that online abuse will not be tolerated. A full, in-depth inquiry is needed to establish if social media companies need to take more responsibly for what is posted on their platforms; or, if in fact, we need more specific legislation to govern social media. The likelihood is that we are now at a point where the law itself needs changing.

Who’d be a woman politician?

Online abuse may be seen as an everyday part of being a politician, but it’s a threat to democracy. Constant abuse aimed at politicians, especially female politicians, threatens to reduce the plurality of voices essential for a modern democracy. As conservative MP Sarah Wollaston recently said, online abuse is “designed to intimidate”. If that intimidation is successful, women will be dissuaded from becoming politicians. Already, only 23.3% of politicians worldwide are women.

Abbott has said:

Other women look at how those of us in the public space are treated and think twice about speaking up publicly let alone getting involved in political activity.

The ConversationIf we want to live in a world of true equality, we need to start tackling online abuse. Simply concluding that such abuse is an everyday part of life is clearly a threat to the political system.

Laura Bliss, Graduate Teaching Assistant in Law, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

You can tell more about a person from their Facebook page than by actually meeting them

 

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Linda Kaye, Edge Hill University and Helen Wall, Edge Hill University

We judge people all the time. Research shows that when we first meet someone, we instantly use features such as their attractiveness and facial expressions to form an opinion about how approachable and trustworthy they are. The Conversation

But what about when our first impression of someone is formed online, for example by looking at a Facebook page or an online dating profile? In these instances, we’re looking at a specially curated set of information about a person that only shows us what they want us to see. And yet a number of studies suggest that these profiles can often give away even more about someone’s personality than actually meeting them.

When psychologists study people’s personalities, they typically judge five key traits: extroversion, openness to (new) experiences, conscientiousness, emotional stability and agreeableness. One thing they often do is use questionnaires that measure these traits to compare our personalities with the impressions other people have of us.

These often involve participants rating how far they agree with a series of statements about their characteristics. Questions about extroversion, for example, involve statements such as “I am the life of the party” and “I feel comfortable around people”. This produces a total score for each trait, building an overall picture of each participant’s personality.

Researchers can also use these questionnaires to judge how people perceive others’ personalities. We typically think that extroversion plays a key role in our impressions of others during face-to-face contact. This means that we are more likely to have favourable emotions about a person we have never met before if we perceive them to be extroverted.

The real window to the soul. Shutterstock

In recent years, researchers have also begun comparing our personalities with the impression we give through our Facebook profiles. Research has generally shown that we are remarkably good at using profile pages to make valid judgements of how open to experience people are. We also make fairly accurate judgements about how conscientiousness and extroverted others are.

What’s interesting is that we’re not so good at accurately judging some of these personality traits in face-to-face meetings. We rarely judge someone to be open to experience from our first impression of them because it is hard to work out how creative and open-minded they are. But extroversion is more easily detected in face to face contact because we tend to be pretty good at detecting whether people are chatty and sociable or not.

Visible features

Facebook provides a different set of markers or cues that allow us to make judgements about people online but that aren’t evident or are harder to detect from a first face-to-face meeting. For example, research suggests someone’s relationship status, interests, group membership, creative photos and even written vocabulary can help you form valid impressions of their openness.

This is important because if you like someone based on their Facebook profile page, you’re likely to like them in the real world. So producing an online profile that has enough cues for people to judge you accurately is particularly important for those instances when first impressions count, such as in online recruitment or dating.

The ability to more accurately judge some personality traits through online profiles suggests online dating can be a good way to seek out potential partners. Contrary to what you might expect, research has found that online daters tend to be more attracted to people who have dissimilar levels of openness and conscientiousness.

The research doesn’t explain why opposites tend to attract in this way, but we could speculate that people often like the idea of trying something different when it comes to online dating, particularly if they’re only dating casually. It also suggests the dating sites that match people according to similar personality types may be operating in the wrong way.

Of course, the limitation of using online profiles to judge someone is that they could just be lying. But usually, Facebook pages and other profiles have a kernel of truth that reveals something we can’t always access from meeting someone face-to-face.

Linda Kaye, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Edge Hill University and Helen Wall, Lecturer in Psychology, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.