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Pressure is on to police hateful speech on social media sites

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(CNN) What’s the ugliest, worst thing you’ve ever read on social media?

Hateful words and actions directed toward various groups are nothing new. But in our digital age, social media sites must increasingly face the fact that with their services, a friendly discussion and exchange of ideas can turn into an ugly undercurrent of nastiness.

The question for sites such as Twitter, which on Tuesday responded to a petition to make reporting abusive behavior easier, is how to police hundreds of millions of people, providing a safe environment for some users while respecting the free speech of others.

At the heart of the problem are the mechanics of policing. The sheer number of users means that flagging misbehavior is like playing a vast, never-ending game of Whac-a-Mole.

“Twitter represents a new medium that the world hasn’t seen before,” Solis said of the site that supports 400 million tweets every day. “To protect its users, it must invest in automated and manual safety and reporting mechanisms as it grows.”

This week, a man was arrested in England for allegedly tweeting a rape threat that came after the Bank of England announced that Jane Austen, author of Pride and Prejudice, would be featured on their 10-pound notes. British police are also investigating another rape and murder threat made to a member of Parliament.

Meanwhile, Facebook was called to task for not being quick enough to stamp out pages such as “Fly Kicking Sluts in the Uterus” and “Violently Raping Your Friend Just For Laughs.”

In May, a coalition of women’s groups called for the site to get tough on pages that appeared to embrace hate speech, particularly violent language, toward women.

Facebook responded by rolling out a slate of efforts that, among other things, increased accountability for pages that post content that is “cruel or insensitive.”

Speaking Saturday at the BlogHer conference in Chicago, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg acknowledged the difficulties in policing abusive behavior among the site’s more than 1 billion account holders. But she said tools to do so continue to improve.

“We have this really big challenge between free expression, which is really important …, and creating a safe and protected community,” she said. “We take both very seriously.

“The No. 1 thing people can do is when you find content that’s inappropriate, there’s a report button. Hit that report button because we can look at and take down inappropriate content as long as we see it, and (it) is really an important part of what we’re trying to do.”

Both the Twitter and Facebook episodes mark what appears to be a shift in online culture. Throughout the Web’s history, a certain amount of bad behavior has come to be expected, be it intentionally provocative online trolling or earnest hatred spewed more freely because of the ability to do so anonymously.

But, in 2013, it’s become nearly impossible to distinguish where “Web culture” ends and culture as a whole begins. Solis, the analyst, noted that as social media become more and more mainstream, bad behavior that would never be accepted on a sidewalk will increasingly be policed, one way or another, online.

“The idea of ‘freedom of tweet’ does not supersede law,” he said. “Expression aimed at hurting or threatening someone is indeed a threat heard around the world.”

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