The big social media companies like Facebook and Twitter are under intense pressure right now to purge from their sites the trolls, usually operating under a false name, who post hate speech.
Despite high profile events and public relations exercises in which the likes of Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook say mea culpa and try to suggest that everything is now under control, the expletive-ridden posts and the poisonous rants and threats from racists, homophobes and misogynists continue.
But what of LinkedIn, the subsidiary of Microsoft which bills itself as a site for professionals to exchange views and find another job? You might imagine that the trolls would give its staid pages a miss and that the company would closely police the site to ensure that LinkedIn does not go the way of FB and Twitter and become a redoubt for the down and disenchanted, the coprolalia sufferers and the frustrated president of the United States to vent their unplugged spleen. You would be wrong.
As the opinion editor of Newsweek, posting columns from a wide range of opinion for many years, I early on took a policy decision not to read, let alone respond to, the often personally abusive comments that are attached at the bottom of the pieces I post. The same applies to the often daft comments written when I share the Newsweek content on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
This week, however, I made an exception. With the events in Charlottesville in the news, I posted a fascinating piece from the Brookings historian Vanessa Williamson telling how slavery first came to Virginia. It served to provide some much needed context in which to place the Confederacy, the part slavery played in the early American economy and the Virginia's role in post-Reconstruction as well as today’s politics.
All this appeared to be lost on a LinkedIn member who sent me a message saying he was surprised that a “white Briton” like me should be interested in such a topic. I won’t name the author or repeat his racially based remarks, as trollers deserve oblivion rather than the oxygen of republication, but I did, for once, respond to him.
It was a classic case of an ad hominem assault, making personal remarks in an attempt to raise my hackles, and that old favorite of blaming the messenger.
Now journalism is a rough old trade and I have been in this business since before this angry troller was born, so I have developed the skin of a rhinoceros.
I wrote to him that I wasn’t sure what my skin color had to do with my posting a piece of American history and that his preoccupation with race -- in this case against a white person -- showed that racism appears in many forms. I said that as the piece had caused him to devote a considerable amount of time to writing to upbraid me, I felt that my choice was fully vindicated.
Now you will guess what happened. He exploded with a further message riddled with hate, aggression and expletives. He is one of those timid people who wants to write “fucking” but can’t quite bring himself to use the word without putting an asterisk instead of a “u.” Anyway, I was, apparently, a “f*cking liberal” and, continuing his understanding of life through racial stereotypes, suggested that as he was of mixed heritage himself, he was deeply offended in at least three different racial ways.
I wouldn’t say that I had deliberately set out to catch a troller in the act, but, not wanting to put such an unpalatable experience to waste, I thought I would use it to discover what LinkedIn did about such plainly racist and expletive-ridden members.
Erasing his posts was the easy part. But getting in touch with LinkedIn to ask whether such a person would now be banished from the site was more difficult. As with many online publications, it was the devil’s job to discover how to reach a real human being.
On the homepage of a member’s LinkedIn account there is a link to the Help Center, though I soon discovered that the term was a misnomer. I had hoped that the issue of a member racially abusing another was so damaging to a prominent site like LinkedIn that they may have made it easy to remove or report offensive comment. Silly me.
The help center’s opening sentence says, “ We strive to make your LinkedIn experience seamless,” but it was anything but. You may have imagined that online abuse was so serious and so topical that it would be a “known issue,” but there was nothing about abusive content under the section “Known Issues.” Nor was it under any of the other headings on the “Help Center” page.
I took to Google to find out the address of LinkedIn customer service and pinged off a short note telling them that I was a journalist who wanted to know how LinkedIn handled such a hot issue.
I wrote to email@example.com telling them that I had deleted the abuse but wanted to report the matter to them and wondered what they would do next. Would the offender be banished from the site? How could he be prevented from tyrannizing someone rather less robust than a tough nut like me. I made clear that I would be writing this piece and asked that they put their comments in an email.
I was about to write, “Imagine my surprise. . . ,” but of course it was no surprise when I was emailed back the following: “We're sorry, but the email address you attempted to use ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) is no longer supported. Please go to the LinkedIn Help Center to search and find answers to your questions. If you don't find your answer, you can click Contact Us at the top of the Help Center and submit your question.” I was amused that this was signed not by one human being but a whole gang of them: “Your LinkedIn Customer Experience Team.”
You have probably guessed already that there is no Contact Us at the top of the Help Center page. I therefore found, from Google again, an email address for LinkedIn’s press office, recounted my experience and hoped for the best.
I was impressed when before long I received a message from James Upsher, whose impressive sounding title is “Corporate Communications Manager (EMEA) Brand, Communications and Social Impact.” “Thanks for getting in touch,” he wrote. “You’ve reach [sic] the right place. I’m sorry that you’ve had a bad experience on the platform.” (It was as if I had slipped on a banana in Grand Central Station.)
He went on to say, “I can’t see the comment from here as it appeared you have successfully delated [sic] it, but I’m in touch with our escalations team to find out the answers to your questions and will come back to you ASAP.”
While I had attracted his attention, I asked, so that he could not be in any confusion about my intentions, “Could you tell me how many people LinkedIn employs to address complaints about trolling, harassment, racism, sexism and all the other ways that users abuse your site? I want to understand how seriously you take customers’ concerns. ‘Fix it yourself’ appears to be the answer.”
As a golden rule, when someone says “No problem” it suggests that there is soon going to be a problem. Still the plausible Mr Upsher wrote, “No problem. Happy to help.”
He was mostly concerned at this stage that I had suggested there was no link to a telephone helpline. The fact is, of course, that LinkedIn has no telephone helpline. Indeed, it is rather proud of the fact. The Customer Service page boasts: “We don't offer a phone number for customer support.”
I asked a few more questions, as journalists tend to do. “How big is your team that deals with abuse on the site? How many complaints do you receive? What number and what proportion ends in purging someone from your site? Do you have records of how many people per week, say, block others for abusive behavior? You have a number of ways on your page here that suggests that while you do not necessarily hear from your members, that they are given every opportunity of blocking someone. In how many of these cases do you take further action?”
In the new world of transparency about abusive trollers from social media sites, I was expecting a detailed response. Two days later, Mr Upsher sent this message. “Our investigations team have reviewed the comment you flagged on Monday and it has been found to not be in breach of the LinkedIn’s terms of service. The specific clause that is relevant is 8.2b here.” So racist abuse expressed with expletives is not, according to the “escalations team,” racist abuse expressed with expletives.
And instead of answering my queries, Mr Upsher wrote this, “Here’s a statement in response to your questions: ‘There is no place for hate speech, including racist language, on LinkedIn, and this is a violation of our Terms of Service. When a member reports what they believe is language in violation of these terms, our team reviews this and takes appropriate action.’” So much for transparency.
8.2b of the LinkedIn code, by the way, says this: “You agree that you will not … Post inaccurate, defamatory obscene, shocking, hateful, threatening or otherwise inappropriate content or airing personal grievances or disputes.” Basing an argument on someone’s skin color and using the word “fucking” is not, according to LinkedIn’s Newspeak, “obscene, shocking, hateful, threatening or otherwise inappropriate” language.
I wrote repeating my questions about the numbers of personnel LinkedIn devote to customer complaints and so on, bearing in mind that its About Us page says that “ LinkedIn has more than 10,000 full-time employees with offices in 30 cities around the world.” Surely if LinkedIn wanted to show how transparent they were about members’ complaints and stress their strenuous efforts to keep hate speech off their site they would be proud to say how many resources they were aiming at the problem.
But no. The ever opaque Mr Upsher wrote, “We do not breakdown the number of LinkedIn employees by a specific team or function.” Which is code for, we know exactly how few people we devote to this task but are too embarrassed to tell you.
Microsoft was one of the companies who piously insisted that they were trying hard to keep hate speech off their sites. They acquired LinkedIn eight months ago, but it seems they are taking a little time to extend their corporate influence over the executives who run their new purchase.
Until they do, LinkedIn will be a safe space for those who enjoy posting hate speech, racist language and misogynistic threats.
Nicholas Wapshott is the opinion editor of Newsweek and the author of The Sphinx: Franklin Roosevelt, the Isolationists and the Road to World War II and Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics.