Should Social Networks Sue Spammers?

Twitter has made waves recently for its decision to file lawsuits against the five most prolific spammers and spamming tool providers. In a blog post, Twitter announced, “Our engineers continue to combat spammers’ efforts to circumvent our safeguards, and today we’re adding another weapon to our arsenal: the law.”

Twitter has long had an issue with spammers, as addressed in previous statements by the company. It would appear that I can’t tweet about anything current or relevant to present trends without receiving a dozen responses from spammers and hacked accounts sending me links to whatever porn or fake something else site these con artists want me to stumble into.

In Twitter’s most recent attempt to put a stop to the prolific and largely annoying spree of spam is just another step in the uphill battles social networks must face to combat the growing number of companies leveraging their platforms for personal gain.

Twitter isn’t the first big brand in social media to take a legal stab at spam. Facebook sued Adscend Media for alleged clickjacking, the practice of using code to turn an otherwise innocent-looking link into an automatic “like” of a company’s product or brand.

What Type of Spam are We Talking About Here?

This may sound like an easy question to answer, but the details surrounding what spam actually is can be quite complex. Spam, as we’ve come to know it on social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google+, is the uninvited advertising of a product, service, or malicious site through comments, instant messages, or other modes of communication.

Some spam can be quite subtle, leading the user to believe it is a legitimate link to something entirely different. The spammer is paid for traffic, the user is tricked into visiting a specific URL, and the social network is given a bad name for harboring this type of traffic.

Much of this spam is actually legitimate advertising that follows the terms and conditions of the network. Simply sending a link out to your followers about your product or service is completely legitimate, as is encouraging them to share the link in order to qualify for a giveaway.

The type of spam that makes social networks and their users shudder can be quite different. Malicious links and bait-and-switch tactics render social networks into virtual minefields full of potential threats to anyone willing to click. When these links come from trusted friends and family, the problem becomes much more serious.

Using a Scalpel Instead of a Hatchet

Twitter is only filing a lawsuit with five spammers or providers of spamming tools. By doing so, it is targeting the source of the problem rather than risking putting hacked accounts, false reports, and other potentially wronged account holders in jeopardy. This is, in this writer’s opinion, a clever move for several reasons.

First, lawsuits are expensive, and Twitter’s legal team know this. By filing the suits, it’s spending valuable resources to combat a serious problem. Spam doesn’t just add to the bottom line of the spammer, but it jeopardizes the social network as well. After all, how often would you use a service that answers every status update with a cascade of useless messages from accounts that aren’t even driven by a real human?

Second, you’d be amazed at just how much spam comes from a single tool or source. Would-be tycoons of the seedy underbelly of the marketing world (not actual marketing professionals, mind you) could very well be just average script-happy kids using a tool that is commonly available to make a profit. By taking on the creators of the tools, Twitter is targeting the source of much of the problem. In essence, it’s actually targeting a lot more than just five spammers.

Third, the suits act as a warning shot to other would-be spammers out there. The RIAA and MPAA may not have filed lawsuits with the millions of pirates out there, but the horror stories that circulated the Web were reason enough for many freeloaders to give piracy a second thought. Again, not a definitive solution, but a deterrence that users are certain to appreciate.

Final Thoughts

Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and other social networks thrive on a content and growing user base. Spam, while profitable for the spammer, does nothing to benefit the social network of the user. Twitter is in the right by upholding its terms and conditions, and using the law to do so is a natural step that other social networks have taken to combat a growing threat.

While Twitter is unlike others in how it handles status updates and messages, with each being severely limited in both length and lifespan against the constantly flowing river of updates in any one news feed, its users are all too aware of the impact these unwanted messages have on experience.

Twitter may not put a stop to spam with this action, but at the very least, it’s more than many of its users give it credit for. It’s easy to blame the social network for the spam, but the reality of the situation is that the social network itself is a victim, too.

What do you think? Should social networks sue spammers, or should they avoid legal actions and stick to developing new strategies to locate and block violators of their terms and conditions?