After a UK teen took her own life in response to bullying on social networking site, ask.fm, her father asked both the site and the UK government to take corrective measures to prevent further tragedies. This wasn’t an isolated incident. Reports linked multiple suicides to bullying on the teen-centered site.
Ask.fm’s problems with bullying and other abuse appeared to be far greater than those observed on other social media sites. Part of this appeared to be due to the site’s user base, which was much younger than more-established social media platforms. This — combined with the option to create anonymous accounts — seemed to have made ask.fm a destination for abusive users. What moderation existed before these problems became headline news was apparently ineffective, resulting in a steady stream of horrific stories until the site began to make serious efforts to curb a problem now too big to ignore.
Ask.fm’s immediate response to both the teen’s father and UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s criticism (Cameron called for a boycott of the site) was to point to existing moderation efforts put in place to deter bullying and other terms of service violations.
After major companies pulled their advertising, ask.fm pledged to assist police in investigating the circumstances behind the teen’s suicide, as well as consult with a law firm to see if moderation efforts could be improved. It also hired more moderators and a safety officer, and made its “Report” button more prominent.
More than a year after ask.fm became the target of criticism around the world, the site implemented its first Safety Advisory Board. The group of experts on teens and their internet use was tasked with reducing the amount of bullying on the platform and making it safer for its young users.
More significantly, ask.fm’s founders — who were viewed as unresponsive to criticism — were removed by the site’s new owners, InterActiveCorp (IAC). IAC pledged to work more closely with US law enforcement and safety experts to improve moderation efforts.
Decisions to be made by ask.fm:
- Should anonymous accounts be eliminated (or stop-gapped by gathering IP address/personal info) to limit abusive behavior?
- Does catering to a younger user base create unique problems not found at sites that skew older?
- Would more transparency about moderation efforts/features nudge more users towards reporting abuse?
- Should the site directly intervene when moderators notice unhealthy/unwanted user interactions?
Questions and policy implications to consider:
- Given the international reaction to the teen’s suicide, does a minimal immediate response make the perceived problem worse?
- Does having a teen user base increase the risk of direct regulation or unfavorable legislation, given the increased privacy protections for minors in many countries?
- Are moderation efforts resulting from user reports vetted periodically to ensure the company isn’t making bullying/trolling problems worse by allowing abusive users to get others suspended or banned?
When immediate steps did little to deter criticism, ask.fm formed a Safety Committee and, ultimately, dismissed founders that appeared to be unresponsive to users’ concerns. The site made changes to its moderation strategies, hired more moderators, and made users more aware of the features they could use to report users and avoid unwanted interactions.
Written by The Copia Institute, August 2020