Where does Facebook and Twitter draw the line on harassment?

A picture illustration shows a Facebook logo reflected in a person's eye, in Zenica, March 13, 2015. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

A man from Glen Ellen, Illinois, was detained recently after taking to Facebook and allegedly threatening to point a gun at Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, among other people, in a series of hate-filled rants. In one of them, 29-year-old Mohammad Waqas Khan wrote “I want a high net worth individual to shoot. I want this to be a real human tragedy,” the Chicago Tribune reported.

Earlier this summer, a case involving threatening messages on the social-media site made it to the United States Supreme Court, where Anthony Elonis was acquitted of threatening his estranged wife via numerous graphic and vile posts. In one of his more timid ones, he asked if his restraining order was “thick enough to stop a bullet”. (Elonis spent more nearly four years in jail before his conviction was overturned in June.)

These two cases may be extreme, but they’re examples of how social media can be used to harass, bully, and threaten others. For those on the receiving end of noxious posts, messages, and tweets, it can be unsettling to say the least.

So how is bad behaviour policed by giants like Facebook and Twitter? And what should people do if they feel they’re being harassed?

If someone continuously breaks the rules we have around bullying and harassment, we shut down their account permanently

—Meg Sinclair, Facebook

“We work really hard to keep threatening behaviour off of Facebook, and we take people’s safety really seriously,” Meg Sinclair of Facebook’s corporate communications department tells Yahoo Canada, pointing to its community standards, which outline what’s tolerated and what’s not and includes categories such as direct threats, bullying and harassment, and sexual violence and exploitation. “We recommend people report [threatening] content to us right away so we can take action on it.”

The response varies on the circumstances.

“It might be removing the content, sending the person who sent it a warning and making them pass through a checkpoint--the next time come in to log onto Facebook we would show them our community standards and in order to be safe they need to agree to abide by this,” Sinclair says. “If someone continuously breaks the rules we have around bullying and harassment, we shut down their account permanently. We have a team of professionals who work around the globe to deal with these kinds of reports 24 hours a day.”

Sinclair couldn’t say how quickly reports are responded to or how many instances of unacceptable behaviour are reported every year. She reminds that users who feel they are being bullied or threatened should not only unfriend the perpetrator but block him.

“If someone reports to us they’re being bullied, the first thing we recommend is to block that person,” Sinclair says. “When they’re blocked, there’s no other way they can reach you [on Facebook]. They can’t see anything you do on Facebook, they can’t see any comments you make, and they can’t see any activity by you and vice versa.”

Sometimes, you need to call the police

“In the vast majority of cases we know of when someone’s being bullied on Facebook, it’s an extension of a problem that’s happening in real life or elsewhere. Very rarely is it just a problem on one Internet platform,” Sinclair says. “If anyone feels that they are in danger or unsafe, always the best course of action is to call the police, always. Even if you think you’ve dealt with the problem on Facebook, it’s possible this person might still try to reach out to you in another way or in the real world. ".”

Twitter insists that users follow its rules related to content and abusive behaviour. A representative from the company directed Yahoo Canada to its polices on its website but didn’t respond to follow-up questions or a request for an interview.

Users “may not publish or post threats of violence against others or promote violence against others”, its rules stipulate.

Nor can people engage in “targeted abuse or harassment”. Some of the factors Twitter takes into account when determining what conduct is considered to be targeted abuse or harassment include: if someone is sending messages to a user from multiple accounts; if the sole purpose of someone’s account is to send abusive messages to others; and if the reported behavior is one-sided or includes threats.

Twitter accounts that engage in bad behavior may be investigated for abuse, according to its website. Certain tweets may be deleted, and accounts may be suspended or locked temporarily or permanently.

“Accounts under investigation may be removed from Search for quality,” its website says. “Twitter reserves the right to immediately terminate your account without further notice in the event that, in its judgment, you violate these Rules or the Terms of Service.”