The Current

Canada's first Twitter trial highlights need to curb online harassment

Last week an Ontario judge found Gregory Alan Elliott not guilty of criminal harassment for his interactions with two women on Twitter. His acquittal was interpreted as encouragement by the trolls and now vocal women's rights activists are facing a barrage of offensive tweets.
Gregory Alan Elliot speaks to reporters outside Old City Hall in Toronto after being found not guilty of harassing two women online, on Jan. 22, 2016. (CBC)

​Many in Canada and around the world have been paying attention to the trial of Gregory Alan Elliott. Elliott was charged with criminal harassment for his interactions with two women on Twitter. Last week, an Ontario judge found him not guilty. 

In the wake of that decision, some Twitter users say the so-called "trolls" have only been emboldened. 

The social news editor at Buzzfeed Canada, Lauren Strapagiel, says she dealt with 48 hours of incessant online trolling after the Gregory Alan Elliott verdict because trolls found her tweets and posted them to other trolls. 

Stephanie Guthrie and Heather Reilly, plaintiffs in a criminal harassment case in which they allege Gregory Alan Elliott harrassed them on Twitter, say they feared for their safety testifying at the trial. (CBC)
"I have this folder on my computer desktop called 'death threats'. It's sad to say that this can be par for the course when you're a woman with an opinion on the internet. - Steph Guthrie, complainant in Gregory Elliott twitter case, giving a Ted Talk 

The subject of harassing tweets is not a new problem to the people running the platform. Even if it is a problem they've yet to solve.

In a memo to employees last year, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo wrote,

We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls .... and we've sucked at it for years... We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day.

It's an issue Saadia Muzaffar reckons with both personally and professionally. She is the CEO of TechGirls Canada, a hub for Canadian women in Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math. She says platforms like Twitter still define harassment through the eyes of the harasser.

The brave new world of online harassment and cyber-bullying hasn't escaped the notice of lawmakers. But sometimes the new laws they craft can't withstand a constitutional challenge. That was the case for Nova Scotia's cyber bullying legislation that privacy lawyer David Fraser instigated. He says online harassment falls short of the criminal threshold in Canada and something has to be done to address this without lowering the threshold and infringing constitutional rights of free speech. 

What are your thoughts on this issue of social media harassment? Do you have an opinion on how to police the twittersphere?

Tweet us @TheCurrentCBC. We're also on Facebook. Or you can send us an email. 

This segment was produced by The Current's Pacinthe Mattar, Kinsey-Clarke and Leif Zapf-Gilje.