Six lessons from the fight against spam for the battles over Twitter abuse

Email firms have got pretty good at dealing with spam – blocking real spam and not blocking non-spam by mistake – over the years. There are six lessons from that which are highly applicable to the current debate about vile abuse on Twitter:

  1. Automatic algorithms get pretty good – given enough time and financial investment. Spam filters such as Google’s are available to use for free and vastly better than the things people used to pay lots of money for.
  2. But they’re not perfect – human judgement and intervention is a key part of a good system.
  3. Blocking messages is wholly inadequate punishment for the most grievous of cases – and so there is an important role for the police in tackling abuses.
  4. Making it easy for people to report spam is helpful in improving systems, but only one part of an overall solution – especially as spam reports can be abused to try to block people who are not spamming but who for some reason you dislike or want to annoy.
  5. Much spam and abuse is easy to agree on as being deserving of blocking. Not all is – and the more powerful the blocking mechanisms, the more important it is that anyone who feels they’ve been wrongly blocked has a meaningful recourse to try to get their content freed up.
  6. Successful action requires smart algorithms, investment in human beings to investigate and double-check cases, effectively written laws and a legal system willing to take the enforcement of such laws seriously.

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