Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author; view more opinion at CNN.
On Tuesday, Rep. Devin Nunes filed a defamation lawsuit against Twitter for allowing users to post insulting tweets about him. The suit also alleges that Twitter deliberately prevented users from seeing his own tweets. In addition, Nunes is suing three Twitter users for their posts – including a cartoon depicting a fabricated sex act between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin along with claims that Nunes caused his family “shame” and was named “Most Likely to Commit Treason” in high school.
On Tuesday, President Trump weighed in on the lawsuit, saying “we have to do something” about social networks because “names are taken off, people aren’t getting through” and “it seems to be if they’re conservatives, if they’re Republicans.” “It’s collusive,” he said.
Nunes’ claims against Twitter are dubious on several scores. His contention that the platform is “shadow banning” his account and those of other Republicans seems to stem from a bug that temporarily didn’t show their names in search results, but didn’t affect the visibility of their tweets. And, as The New York Times noted, according to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, social platforms are not “treated as the publisher or speaker” of the content users post, and are therefore thought to be exempt from legal liability for such tweets. His ridiculous attempt to go after Twitter handles like “Nunes mom” and “Nunes cow” also evinces remarkably thin skin and an inability to handle the criticism that comes with being a public figure.
But what is most surprising is that Nunes, whose job as a member of Congress is to represent and protect Americans, is seeking justice for himself – to the tune of $250 million in damages – but not for other victims of online hate. It will be ironic if, as a man in a position of great power, he extracts retribution for himself from those whom he claims defamed him but doesn’t help the many other less privileged people who are so often victimized by online hate.
Of course, Nunes is right that social platforms need to do more to police abuse. Specifically, they need to crack down on users who threaten or harass people on their platforms. Such activity is widespread. Forty-one percent of Americans have experienced online harassment, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center study. Of them, 18% were victims of truly frightening behavior, such as stalking and physical threats.
Research shows that trolls are more likely to be men. But their targets are very often women and people of color. As I have written before, I often receive hateful tweets and emails for my commentary for CNN Opinion and Bloomberg Opinion. Almost all the people who send me abusive emails use names that are typically associated with men, and the content is often rife with misogyny. I’m hardly alone – many others have spoken out and shared their stories. Amnesty International has published a report describing Twitter as a “toxic place for women” and PEN America notes the disproportionate impact on women, people of color and LGBTQ folks in its categorization of online hate as a threat to free speech.
White supremacist and nationalist ideologies, which largely target minority populations, also flourish on social media and the internet. While a judgment against the Twitter users in favor of Nunes – who has the resources to bring a lawsuit – could set a precedent that could ultimately help less-privileged people obtain justice in the future, other victims shouldn’t have to wait. Nunes should also work to help them.
Of course, Twitter and other platforms have policies against hateful conduct. But they rarely shutter the accounts of users who violate them. However, Nunes could introduce a bill mandating that social networks do more to address threats on their platforms.
Even if social platforms cracked down on violations of their user agreements, to solve the problem of online hate, they would also need to rethink their policies and take more substantive action. As Guardian writer Jessica Valenti noted in 2017, according to Facebook’s policies, “If someone were to send the message, ‘unless you stop bitching I’ll have to cut your tongue out,’ it would be classified as an ‘aspirational’ or ‘conditional’ statement. So this direct threat would be permitted on the site.” (Valenti herself took a social media break after one user threatened to rape and kill her 5-year-old daughter.)
According to internal documents published by The Guardian at the time, Facebook said “people use violent language to express frustration online” and that those using such language are actually “indifferent towards the person they are making the threats about because of the lack of empathy created by communication via devices as opposed to face to face.”
For a recent CNN Health report about anti-vaxers using Facebook to target mothers who had lost young children to vaccine-preventable illness (in some cases with death threats), a Facebook spokesperson said this: “We want members of our community to feel safe and respected on Facebook and will remove material that appears to purposefully target private individuals with the intention of degrading or shaming them.”
Of course, another part of the problem is the lack of investigations into online threats by law enforcement bodies. Online hate is rarely prosecuted. Part of the problem is that more jurisdictions need to step up to pass and enforce more laws that criminalize activities like “revenge porn,” which involves sharing intimate content featuring former lovers without their consent, according to Sue Scheff, co-author of “Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate.” But “Shame Nation” points out that stalking and harassment are already crimes. They therefore could be investigated now by law enforcement bodies. If local police and the FBI did more to go after online abuse, trolls would quickly realize they couldn’t attack people with impunity anymore. That could very rapidly shut down a lot of abuse.
Nunes is right that online abuse is a big problem. But rather than seeking millions of dollars for himself, he should use his power as a member of Congress to pursue laws that compel social platforms and law enforcement bodies to take action to help all victims of online hate — most of whom are much more vulnerable than he is.