Twitter hopes trolls can be stopped by eradicating ignorance

Twitter wants to know if reminding trolls of the rules can stop abusive behavior.

Twitter is working with researchers to conduct a new study into how trolling and abusive behavior online can be mitigated.

The social media giant hopes that by educating and reminding those who engage in abusive behavior on Twitter of the rules, this may reduce widespread bullying which takes place on the platform every day.

Whether or not the rules will matter to those who believe they are acting under the protection of anonymity or invincibility online, however, remains to be seen.

Online abuse is a virulent and deep-rooted problem which can have devastating consequences. Especially problematic on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook where bullying can be both public and potentially go viral, online abuse can result in anger, hurt, and potentially psychological damage for victims.

On the business side, online abuse and smear campaigns can ruin reputations and even end up closing businesses.

How to tackle these issues, however, has been a cause for debate.

In a post on Medium, Harvard University researcher Susan Benesch and Princeton University researcher J. Nathan Matias said on Sunday that the collaborative study aims to "diminish abuse on Twitter."

Twitter is now testing a simple idea: remind abusers of the rules and see if they follow them. If these social norms are expected and accepted, this may result in an improvement of behavior.

The project includes publicized rules for offenders and will also include the collection of user data within an evaluation framework to see whether or not thrusting the rules in a troll's face has any impact.

"To protect privacy, the company will only give us anonymized, aggregated information," the researchers say. "Since we will not receive identifying information on any individual person or Twitter account, we cannot and will not mention anyone or their Tweets in our publications."

Transparency appears to be at the heart of the study, and while the researchers will not reveal every aspect of the experiment -- so the results do not introduce bias or become skewered -- the team says the project is being conducted "as an open collaboration under a set of legal, ethical, and scientific constraints."

"This will protect Twitter users, safeguard the credibility of our work, and ensure that the knowledge gained from it will be available for anyone to use -- even other internet companies," the researchers added.

Two university ethics committees have approved the study.

It seems like an extremely simple answer to the problem of online abuse, but perhaps simplicity is key to the solution. If trolls and online abusers are made aware of -- or reminded of -- the rules, perhaps they may reconsider their online conduct in order to retain access to the platform.

Or, alternatively, the rules will simply be ignored in favor of continuing their antisocial behavior, simply because they can without any consequences of note.

In a statement, Twitter said:

"We're collaborating with a group of academic researchers and scholars led by Susan Benesch, J. Nathan Matias, and Derek Ruths on an initiative to remind people of the Twitter Rules, to evaluate whether increased awareness of our policies results in improved behavior and more respect on Twitter."

See also: Twitter closed 1.2 million accounts for terrorist content

Earlier this month, Twitter revealed in the firm's 12th transparency report that 1.2 million accounts were suspended from August 2015 to December 2017 for promoting and sharing terrorist content.

The social media giant is able to flag the majority of these accounts before their first tweet.

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