It’s been a week for the Internet’s ugly side.
On Monday, President Barack Obama’s launch of his new Twitter account @POTUS (for President of the United States) was greeted with a rash of racist and hate-filled tweets.
On Tuesday, it emerged that by using offensive terms for African Americans on Google Maps, users are directed to the White House and historically black universities. Google said it is working to fix the problem.
The Internet’s occasional offensiveness is nothing new.
We often mistakenly think of the online world as a Utopia where ideas are openly exchanged in a civil way.
In fact, it is often worse than the real world, with people able to hide behind anonymity to air things they would never say in person and to reach a wider audience than ever before.
“The instantaneous access social media provides is like giving a can of spray paint to a compulsive graffiti vandal,” said Richard Prince, a columnist for the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. “Like the website owners who attracted offensive remarks to their ‘comments’ sections, the proprietors of social media will have to determine the appropriate counter measures.”
The two most recent events of Ugly Internet are unique in their own way.
Racist tweets to @POTUS were, of course, predictable. One of the first, 10 minutes after the president greeted the world, reportedly used a racial slur and told him to get cancer. That account has been suspended, although Twitter wouldn’t comment on individual accounts for privacy reasons. (Obama did gain 1 million followers in five hours, breaking the record previously held by Robert Downey Jr.)
As for Google Maps, the issue is even more insidious than a few pranksters with computer skills and a racist bent.
As Google said in a blog post about the problem Wednesday, “certain offensive search terms were triggering unexpected maps results, typically because people had used the offensive term in online discussions of the place.”
In other words, online trash talk about the president and the White House meant that those terms, over time, became associated with the White House in Google’s famous algorithm, which then filtered into its map service.
Google said that it was updating its search ranking system and that eventually the problem would be fixed. “We sincerely apologize for the offense this has caused, and we will do better in the future,” the firm said.
But the incident is shocking nonetheless. The Ugly Internet reared its head without anyone even meaning for it to.
In a world where users have a lot of online choices to vent, share and talk, people will vote with their clicks. More typical are questions faced by Twitter and other services that worry that personal attacks turn people away and stifle ideas. More and more, sites are creating stricter guidelines for reporting and dealing with abuse.
This month, Reddit, which bills itself as the “front page of the Internet,” announced it was updating its harassment policy. “The number one reason redditors do not recommend the site — even though they use it themselves — is because they want to avoid exposing friends to hate and offensive content,” the company admitted in a blog post. Interim CEO Ellen Pao told NPR that “it’s not our site’s goal to be a completely free-speech platform.”
Such recalibrations of the rules of engagement are important, said Irina Raicu, director of Internet ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. “It’s a calculation of the benefits versus harms. To my mind, it’s long overdue.”
But some question when social media firms decide to act. “It looks like companies respond when their brands are at stake and are not as concerned about what is actually happening,” said Khadijah White, an assistant professor at Rutgers University’s school of communication and information.
Social media firms, whatever their motivations, never will be done wrestling with the Ugly Internet. But it’s a battle too important to give up.
Contact Michelle Quinn at 510-394-4196 and [email protected] Follow her at Twitter.com/michellequinn.