Over the past year or so, Twitter has moved steadily away from its early motto of being “the free speech wing of the free speech party". As harassment and abuse has gone viral on the social network, it has banned revenge porn, issued new anti-harassment rules, established a trust and safety council and suspended high-profile users it considers abusive.
Those steps, though, have done little if anything to prevent online abuse and hate. Time and time again, high-profile users have been driven off the network by virulent tweets. Twitter's abuse-fighting rules are still severely lacking, and where they do exist, they are often not really enforced at all.
In a Buzzfeed story this week, high-level former employees said that the social network’s history with abuse has been characterized by "inaction and organizational disarray."
"Fenced in by an abiding commitment to free speech above all else and a unique product that makes moderation difficult and trolling almost effortless, Twitter has, over a chaotic first decade marked by shifting business priorities and institutional confusion, allowed abuse and harassment to continue to grow as a chronic problem and perpetual secondary internal priority," Buzzfeed reporter Charlie Warzel writes.
Over time, as the company has grown, one former employee told Buzzfeed that its commitment to free speech has shifted from being a "virtue" to an "Achilles' heel."
“The people that run Twitter … are not stupid," Twitter’s former head of news, Vivian Schiller, told the website. "They understand that this toxicity can kill them, but how do you draw the line? Where do you draw the line? I would actually challenge anyone to identify a perfect solution. But it feels to a certain extent that it’s led to paralysis.”
There may be no perfect solution, but there are a few relatively simple things Twitter could do to tamp down on abuse right now:
Twitter already lets you choose whose tweets you can actually see, but allowing users to decide what kinds of users can tweet at them, too, could go a long way toward stopping abuse before it actually happens.
Twitter could, Fusion contributor Caroline Sinders has suggested, give users the option to decide whether new accounts or accounts with only a few followers can be directed at them, preventing trolls from creating new accounts just to harass. Allowing a user to block multiple accounts tweeting from the same IP address, too, could similarly go a long way. Plenty of other networks already use some version of this strategy, such as Reddit, on which some subreddits do not allow newly created accounts to post.
The network could give users other filters to choose from, too, like allowing a user to block accounts with no avatar or with certain words in their bio (say #GamerGate), as suggested by Mother Jones editor Clara Jeffery. Or it could allow users to block the followers of a specific user, which might have helped out Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones when she was targeted by followers of conservative columnist Milo Yiannopoulos.
Twitter could also create an optional setting which would prevent people you don't follow from tweeting at you at all.
Twitter’s definition of abuse is incredibly vague. If you're a user whose being harassed, it's often unclear what kinds of harassment Twitter might actually act on. Anything outside of physical threats exists in a gray area. When, for example, I reported more than a dozen tweets directed at me that suggested I deserved to die, called me a “whore” and proposed tracking down my location to enact some sort of sordid revenge for a story I had written, Twitter deleted just one, which seemed no worse than the others. And when I asked for explanation, Twitter simply said: “We do not comment on individual accounts.”
Twitter's abuse policy tells users: “User abuse and technical abuse are not tolerated on Twitter.com, and may result in permanent suspension.” In January, Twitter de-verified Milo Yiannopoulos without specific explanation as to what rules he had violated. Then last month, after inciting his followers to harass Leslie Jones, the network permanently banned him. In neither case was it clear which of Yiannopoulos' specific actions were of concern to Twitter, or why the company chose the punishment it did.
“For years, it allowed this equal footing, where a troll you didn’t follow and your best friend who you follow and interact with all the time were given equal weight, and that’s crazy,” a former senior employee told Buzzfeed. “Seriously, if you were an alien and you came down to look at this thing, you’d say, ‘Oh, the product was basically built for maximum ease of trolling.’ Like, they must have built this for trolls.”
One way to fix abuse: hire people who understand its seriousness in the first place.