Periscope, a video-streaming app owned by Twitter, has an unusual new method for determining and tackling abusive trolls on the platform: Letting users vote on whether posts are abusive or not.
If you report a comment that someone makes on a live video, it will be shown to a jury of five people also watching that stream. If the majority of that jury say it’s abusive, or looks like spam, then it gets removed, and the reported user gets their ability to comment removed for a short time. If this happens multiple times, then they’re kicked from the video stream.
It’s a neat idea — but there’s the possibility that it could be used by trolls to reject genuine reports of abuse.
Twitter has long battled with abuse on its platform, with limited success — and women have reported sexual harassment on Periscope too. Given the real-time nature of video streaming and its accompanying conversation, it is even more urgent that Periscope gets to grips with the problem before the platform toxifies.
There is potential for censorship and abuse
Let’s look at a few examples. The tool seems well-equipped to deal with some of the most straightforward abusive comments. If a random user pops up on a stream of a Beyoncé concert spewing racist epithets, the jury system will almost certainly vote to have them removed immediately. No problem there.
But it gets more complicated when you look at more targeted abuse.
The most extreme abuse is often deliberate and pre-meditated: “Trolls” and abusers will dog-pile their chosen targets in large numbers, often abusing performatively for the entertainment of others and to attract new abusers to their cause. In such circumstances, when a stream is overwhelmed by targeted abuse, then the trolls could hijack the jury system, and use it to upvote genuinely abusive comments that are reported by a minority of non-abusive viewers. They could even maliciously report the comments of non-abusive viewers as abusive to silence them and kick them from the stream.
In another example, you could have a video stream that is popular, but also highly divisive — a Donald Trump speech, for example. The majority of viewers are not trolls or abusers, but they could still abuse the jury tool to report and vote against comments from dissenting minority viewers — even if these minority viewers’ comments are not genuinely abusive.
In such circumstances, it becomes a potential tool for censorship.
Business Insider reached out to Periscope and Twitter for comment, and will update this story when it responds.
“We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls”
Twitter is notorious for the behaviour of some of its users, with some women and minority groups at times targeted by appalling, persistent mass abuse. Twitter has acknowledged this problem: In 2015, then-CEO Dick Costolo wrote in a leaked internal memo: “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years.”
Within a week of its launch in April 2015, Kat George wrote for Bustle that Periscope was also “being overrun with sexual harassment of women.” The Verge’s Caroline Sinders has also experienced similar, writing that “streaming my own video felt good … at least until strangers showed up and started talking about dicks.”
This kind of abuse isn’t exclusive to Periscope — but as the video streaming app comes under extreme pressure from Facebook’s live video efforts, it is clearly desperate to avoid developing a reputation.
Announcing the jury tool, lead iOS engineer Aaron Wasserman acknowledged to The Verge the abusive behaviour that any social network can enable. “That same tool that let you really feel connected to this broadcaster who might be halfway around the world showing you their perspective also means you can really have an effect on them — a harmful one, unfortunately.”
Periscope says that the jury tool isn’t a panacea that can solve abuse overnight, and should be used in combination with existing tools for reporting abusive users. “There are no silver bullets, but we’re committed to developing tools to keep Periscope a safe and open place for people to connect in real-time,” the company said in a blog post.
It’s still early days, so it’s difficult to know for sure what will happen: The tool may well have a very positive net impact. It may even have a deterrent effect on some forms of abuse, with trolls less likely to act out knowing that user retribution will be swift. Video streamers can also choose to disable it, which could help to curtail its misuse by repeated dog-pile abusers.
But fundamentally, crowdsourcing moderation relies relies on the wisdom of the crowd — and that’s not guaranteed.
Trolling is often a terrifying form of mob rule. Periscope’s solution is to give more power to the mob.