Twitter has issued new rules to help it clamp down on abusive behaviour, while its British chief apologised to women targeted for online attacks, as it battled to deflect widespread criticism that it was not doing enough to target trolls.
The company said on Saturday that it hadupdated its regulations to make it clear that abuse would not be tolerated, and put extra staff in place to deal with potential problems. The move came as police revealed they were investigating allegations by eight people that they had been abused on the microblogging site.
Scotland Yard said its e-crime unit is looking into the claims, three of which involve incidents outside London.
Twitter found itself in the spotlight after three female journalists said they had been the subject of bomb threats on the site and an MP and a feminist campaigner received threats of rape.
The bomb threat tweet was sent to Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman, Independent columnist Grace Dent and Europe editor of Time magazine Catherine Mayer. The message was also sent to a number of other women, including Sara Lang, a social media manager at US campaign group AARP.
In separate incidents, Labour MP Stella Creasy and campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, who successfully fought for a woman's face to appear on £10 banknotes, were targeted with rape threats.
The threats sparked an online petition calling for Twitter to add a "report abuse" button to tweets, which has attracted more than 124,000 signatures.
In a message posted on its blog on Saturday, Twitter's senior director for trust and safety, Del Harvey, and UK general manager Tony Wang said it had updated its rules in light of feedback from customers.
"It comes down to this: people deserve to feel safe on Twitter," they said.
The company has updated its rules, clarifying that it will not tolerate abusive behaviour, they said, adding that an "in-tweet" report button will be added so people can report abusive behaviour directly from a tweet. "We want people to feel safe on Twitter, and we want the Twitter rules to send a clear message to anyone who thought that such behaviour was, or could ever be, acceptable," he wrote.
Wang issued a tweet in which he said: "I personally apologise to the women who have experienced abuse on Twitter and for what they have gone through."
He added: "The abuse they've received is simply not acceptable. It's not acceptable in the real world, and it's not acceptable on Twitter."
Twitter said additional staff were being added to the teams that handle abuse reports and the company is working with the UK Safer Internet Centre, which promotes the safe and responsible use of technology.
Criado-Perez, 29, queried why it had taken Twitter a week to respond to the concerns. She said the site did not make it easy to report abuse. "The current process is lengthy, complicated and impossible to use if you're under sustained attack like I have been," she said. "Right now, all the emphasis is on the victim, often under intense pressure, to report rather than for Twitter to track down the perpetrator and stop them."
Meanwhile, Scotland Yard confirmed it was investigating several incidents.
"Detectives from the specialist organised and economic crime command have taken responsibility for the investigations into a number of allegations recently made to the MPS relating to allegations of malicious communication made on the social networking site Twitter," the Met confirmed in a statement. "The Police Central e-Crime Unit (PCeU), who hold the police national cyber crime remit, is now investigating allegations made by eight people that they have been subject to harassment, malicious communication or bomb threats."
Women's groups said they feared networks of misogynists were operating on Twitter in a similar way to online paedophile rings. Paladin National Stalking Advocacy Service said it was liaising with senior police officers to target Twitter users responsible for disseminating rape threats, death threats and bomb threats.
"Some are already known by those who monitor trolls," said Laura Richards, its co-director. "They operate like a network of paedophiles in some senses and they are doing so much damage they should be looked at as separate and networked entities."
Richards advocates a hi-tech unit modelled along the lines of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre, whose officers infiltrate online networks.
It has also emerged that the police are looking at drafting national guidance for officers in order to help them act on online threats.
Andy Trotter, head of the Association of Chief Police Officers communications advisory group, said that he was talking to the recently formed professional standards body, the College of Policing, to ensure some form of official guidance was shared with officers to help them evaluate threats on social media.
Police have been criticised for failing to crack down on threats posted on social media, although two arrests have been made following the recent barrage of threats against women.
Trotter said: "We do not want to police the internet – that is not our role – but we will police credible threats and harassment against individuals."
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image: © Howard Lake