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Monday, September 16, 2013

Outburst Highlights Conundrum for Twitter

One of Twitter’s greatest values, which its investors are hoping to capitalize on soon, is as a real-time global bullhorn that lets users make their voices heard about anything under the sun.

But that open bullhorn can also become a platform for all kinds of trash talk, including racist and sexist screeds.

The latest effusion of disparaging comments came late Sunday night after the crowning of Nina Davuluri as Miss America 2014. Twitter exploded with rants about Ms. Davuluri. Ms. Davuluri, a Syracuse, N.Y., native born to Indian immigrant parents, was wrongly described as Muslim, Arab, Egyptian and blamed for terror attacks.

Typical of the kind of tweet was this one: “Congratulations Al-Qaeda. Our Miss America is one of you,” said a user with the Twitter handle Blayne_MkItRain. (The account no longer exists.)

Twitter is no stranger to this sort of commentary. Far more pointed abuse was lobbed at a woman who had campaigned in August to get Jane Austen on a British banknote. The woman, Caroline Criado-Perez, received a barrage of rape threats. It led to a petition on change.org. “Abuse on Twitter is common; sadly too common,” the petition read. “And it frequently goes ignored.”

The petition quickly gathered 140,000 signatures and pushed Twitter to announce a new way to report abusive posts: a button that allows users to flag individual tweets they find abusive.

The people who targeted Ms. Criado-Perez led Twitter’s manager for the United Kingdom, Tony Wang, to issue a personal apology on his Twitter feed. In early September, he resigned.

Twitter has long distinguished itself from other social networks for letting its users speak freely. Its chief executive, Dick Costolo, once called the service “the free speech wing of the free speech party.”

That motto has brought Twitter under occasional criticism and legal battles, and it may prove even harder to live up to after the company’s coming stock sale. Balancing its free speech principles with its need to watch its bottom line is likely to be one of Twitter’s major challenges, and how the company behaves is likely to have ramifications for other online platforms.

The issue has come into sharp focus in France, where the company agreed in July to identify several users who posted anti-Semitic comments on its service, and whom French authorities sought to prosecute for violating that country’s anti-hate laws. In this country, the Anti-Defamation League in particular has criticized Twitter for not policing hate speech on its platform.

Naturally, Ms. Davuluri took to Twitter too, but did not take on her detractors directly. “Overjoyed by the amazing response & support from so many people across the U.S.! I’m so proud to be your new #GirlNextDoor!”

Meanwhile, a Tumblr account that called itself “public shaming” compiled Twitter posts that labeled her a terrorist and a Muslim.

The #MissAmerica contretemps proved Twitter to be as effective a platform for retorts as rants. Hari Kondabulu, an Indian American comedian, wrote: