It’s openly acknowledged, even by the company itself, that Twitter is the pits when it comes to protecting users from abuse. In February, a leaked internal memo quoted CEO Dick Costolo as saying, “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years… It’s no secret and the rest of the world talks about it every day. We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day.” An official op-ed last week reiterated the point. “Freedom of expression means little as our underlying philosophy if we continue to allow voices to be silenced because they are afraid to speak up,” wrote Twitter’s general counsel Vijaya Gadde.
Indeed, they’ve taken some steps to address the problem, even enlisting feminist groups like Women, Action and the Media! (whose work I have participated in, though I’m not involved in this campaign) for an abuse-reporting project that collected data on harassment. But in the past week, the company’s commitment has seemed more questionable. Twitter has unveiled two new features, one of which horrified activists and one which was mildly heartening, if widely seen as insufficient. The first is an opt-in ability to receive direct messages from anyone, even if you don’t follow them. This move, perceived by media watchers as a way to cash in on the lucrative instant messaging field and help corporate brands “reach out,” received immediate pushback.
“The perception is, that tool has been marketed to politicians and companies who can use the DM function to engage their audience,” says WAM’s Jamia Wilson. “But this impacts individuals who are often targeted differently.” Both Wilson and Imani Gandy, a black feminist journalist and prominent Twitter user who has spoken out repeatedly about her experience with harassment, question the timing of this DM announcement, at a moment right after the op-ed, when the conversation about abuse is actually being taken seriously. “It shows an absurd level of insensitivity to roll out something that leads to less abuse protections right now,” says Gandy. She also pointed to an observation from Ezra Klein that, if the feature does become a useful tool for journalists or other professionals who figure out how to utilize it for their own gain, it creates one more structural hurdle for women, queer people, and people of color who won’t opt in.
Yesterday Twitter made a second announcement of expanded protection for users, including the hiring of more staffers to deal with abuse. A silly (yet helpful) post from a UK tech site pointed out how many of the features were reminiscent of classroom discipline, particularly the “time out,” which will lock out abusive users for periods of time, and the “take it back,” which will force them to delete offending tweets to gain readmission. Sometimes users suspected of making threats will be forced to verify their account with a phone number. There’s also a “troll finder” algorithm being tested out that will identify harassing tweets and hide them from a user’s mentions.
While some of these steps are indeed beneficial, says Gandy, “None of that stuff is useful for people like me.” Gandy has been targeted by one harasser for years, one who repeatedly gets suspended and creates new accounts, where he can lash out at her and other journalists again. Muting and blocking doesn’t work with dedicated trolls like this. “It’s hard to wake up every morning to just have ethnic slurs and nonsense constantly in my mentions. I’ve been reporting him for years,” she says. “Disqus has blocked him from multiple platforms, so I don’t understand why Twitter can’t do the same for someone who’s a repeat offender.”
For Wilson of WAM! and other groups that are pushing Twitter to change its policy, the emphasis is on redefining free speech to include freedom to stay on the platform without routine, traumatizing harassment. “Prioritizing free speech also means that the safety of users who disproportionately face online abuse (i.e. women, trans folks, women of color) is also prioritized,” she says.
Activists say that externally imposed changes from Twitter are useful, but listening to the experiences of users who have been harassed and designing fixes and a reporting structure based on their particular experiences and suggestions will make the biggest difference. “It was good to see a shift in messaging about free speech and abuse, to see them hire more moderators to address harassment, and to see them update their violent threats policy,” Wilson says. “We called for these things publicly and we’re glad to hear that they are listening. These are steps forward, but there’s work to do to create structural changes that make real impact.”
In other words, Twitter needs to address the experiences of people like Gandy and countless others who have been chased off the platform or can’t use it much because participating has become so miserable for them. “I’m sure if I were famous they would be doing something,” says Gandy. “They talk a good game.”