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Why Twitter's ‘troll’ trouble could hurt its IPO prospects

Thursday, 1 Aug 2013 | 11:12 AM ET
Matt Cardy | Getty Images

With the rumor mills chugging out regular stories about Twitter's plans for an initial public offering (IPO), media analysts are debating whether recent problems regarding"trolling" - anonymous bullies on the Internet - could scupper any flotation plans.

Representatives from the social media website are set to be summoned before a U.K. Parliament committee, after threats of rape and violence were made against women on the social media website.

Activist Caroline Criado Perez was subjected to a torrent of anonymous tweets that led her to publicly criticize Twitter for its lack of a decent complaint and reporting procedure, after she successfully campaigned for a woman to be chosen as the face of the new U.K. £10 note.

U.K. politician Stella Creasy received similar Twitter threats after speaking out in support of Perez, and Hadley Freeman, a Guardian newspaper journalist, was subject to a bomb threat:

Two arrests were made this week by police regarding the cases.

(Read more: Pound and no prejudice—Guess who will grace £10 notes?)

Lorna Tilbian, the head of media at Numis Securities, said that the "trolling" storm decreased the likelihood of an IPO going through.

"This sort of publicity makes people think twice,"said Tilbian. "If you're going to have legal risks it scuppers this IPO plan."

She added that Twitter still provided a serious commercial proposition for investors: "It's today's form of communication, so the market will be interested in it, but you've also got to have a legal aspect to it. All this threat and abuse doesn't work."

However, Dave Clemente, a research associate in international security at Chatham House, argued that the current debate does not matter for Twitter's financial reputation, but rather for its customer relations.

"It's more of a long-term reputation management [issue]," Clemente said. "If they can show they can respond to these incidents more quickly, then that's one way of delaying or forestalling the emergence of a rival to Twitter."

(Read more: Prosecute Twitter rape trolls in name of free speech, says UK victim)

One issue for Twitter is how to placate its users without letting go of its commitment free speech.

"It's always going to be a question of walking the line," said David Emm, senior security researcher at Kaspersky Lab, an I.T. security company. "There will always be people who will say, 'Hang on a second, we don't want to get into areas of censorship affecting people's personal liberty,' but, on the other hand, they [Twitter] need to be able to mitigate against some postings."

Clemente said that it was important for Twitter to keep its users happy, even before it goes public.

"It's important that they stand up for their users," he said. "Showing that they can live up to their ethos of being highly independent; I reflect on the fact they've resisted U.S. government requests for Twitter-user information."

In response to the complaints, Twitter has announced plans to include a "report abuse" button with every tweet, something that is currently available only on its mobile app.

(Read more: Happy Birthday Twitter: 7 Things You Didn't Know About It)

In an interview with NBC News, Creasy praised Twitter's move, but said it needed to go further. She asked Twitter to make sexual harassment an "explicit violation" of its rules, and to work more closely with law enforcement agencies.

Emm emphasized that the "report abuse" button needed to be backed-up by a process for dealing with abuse, rather than just being a publicity tool.

"It's tricky," he said."I think there is a need for a button, but the key is whether there is some process behind that for actually dealing with it. If there is a process at the back-end for handling stuff like that - it drops into a bucket, it's processed automatically and somebody does something about it - then great. If they don't have that, it's just tokenism."

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