What this approach fails to recognize

Amanda Hess at Slate points out what a terrible, non-existent job Twitter does of preventing users from harassing people.

When CNBC invited Twitter users to ask questions of Twitter CEO Dick Costolo last month, thousands of people chimed in with queries like, “Why is reporting spam easy, but reporting death and rape threats hard?” and “Why are rape threats not a violation of your ToS?” According to CNBC, more than 28 percent of the 8,464 questions submitted to the network concerned harassment and abuse on Twitter. But when Costolo appeared on CNBC’s Closing Bell, he didn’t address the problem of online threats. 

Sure enough, that sounds exactly like Twitter. It never does address the problem of online threats. 

The company’s typical response to complaints about abusive and harassing behavior on Twitter is to advise users to fend for themselves. The networktells abused individuals to shut up (“abusive users often lose interest once they realize that you will not respond”), unfollow, block, and—in extreme cases—get off Twitter, pick up the phone, and call the police. Twitter opts to ban abusive users from its network only when they issue “direct, specific threats of violence against others.” That’s a criminal standard stricter than the code you’d encounter at any workplace, school campus, or neighborhood bar.

And the result is that Twitter is a playground for people who enjoy harassing others.

What this approach fails to recognize is that online harassment is a social problem (one that disproportionately affects the same folks who are marginalized offline, like minority groups, LGBT people, and women), and making the Internet a safe and equitable place to communicate requires a social solution. 

But of course their goal isn’t to make the Internet a safe and equitable place to communicate. It’s to get as many people as possible using Twitter as much as possible. Obsessive harassers are great for that.

She talks about the Blockbot and other blocking apps, and points out the limitations.

But without Twitter’s cooperation, these developers are still focusing on selected users instead of addressing the problem on a site-wide level. Sharing my block list with my followers might alert a few people to a few bad apples, but all that will accomplish is offering a handful of people the option to block some vile tweets from view. This is, ultimately, in service of Twitter’s preferred solution—that users ignore abuse, pretend stalkers don’t exist, avert their eyes from harassment, and don’t bother Twitter HQ.

These apps won’t actually inspire Twitter to shut down the serial abusers who use their Twitter accounts to harass and threaten women. They won’t help attract serious legal attention to their crimes. And they won’t compel Twitter to instruct its brilliant developers to imagine new sitewide solutions for the problem, or else lend its considerable resources toward educating government officials and law enforcement officers about the abuses its users are suffering on its network. Right now, Twitter doesn’t even have the basics down: University of Maryland law professor Danielle Citron, writing about a recent lawsuit filed against Facebook for ignoring revenge porn on its site, suggests that social networks can begin to serve harassed users by hiring more employees to sift through complaints instead of assigning the task to robots; prioritizing reports of threats over reports of spam; notifying users of the outcome of their complaints; and—above all—actually communicating with users on this issue.

Damn right.




  1. Blanche Quizno says

    I see this as an extension of “free market”-type philosophy – that the market, if let alone, will adjust itself to an optimum level for the most participants.

    It does not.

    The only way to keep markets functioning in a healthy manner is through heavy regulation. Otherwise, monopolies invariably arise and consume everything. Likewise, the urges that wish to silence discussion and dissent combine on interactive media to do so, and, just like the monopolists, are crazy effective. THAT is why such spheres of interaction must not only be rigorously monitored, but heavily enforced. I’m not advocating a world where one can never refer to a douchenozzle as such, but the issue here is restricting barriers to free and open speech. Through censorship. Yeah, I went there. These idiots who spread lies and attribute them to others as a form of attack should have their media privileges revoked. I’m completely serious.

  2. quixote says

    Ben Kuchera wrote a related article: “Twitter could fight this [harassment], of course, but the service won’t. The company is enjoying high revenues and a soaring stock price, but it has yet to own up to the fact that harassment is part of the product being offered.” It increases engagement. Engagement ups stock price. The harassed people, usually women of course, are just the dead goat that pulls in the other harassers to the Twitter-buzkashi. (You can substitute “Facebook” for “Twitter” at will.)

    Our problem is we just don’t understand that the goat’s feelings are totally not the point.

  3. screechymonkey says

    Another interesting harassment story here, reporting on a Reddit thread in which a woman discovers that her husband (and father of her child-to-be) has been trolling and harassing people on Reddit, Tumblr, and elsewhere for years. He defends his behavior as a necessary “release,” and refuses to stop or get counseling.

    Of course, there’s no way to verify the account, but I found it all too depressingly plausible.

  4. jesse says

    @screechymonkey — reminds me of the guy Gawker outed — “violentacrez”, remember him? — who would harass people and troll folks and post all the shit from his id. He wouldn’t stop either until someone outed him, and he seemed to enjoy the attention. And of course, it came to bite him on the ass, but he would always say it was a joke blah blah…

    People need to release things sometimes, but FFS do it by yourself, to yourself, and don’t involve anyone else (christ, has none of these people heard of a punching bag? Pushups? Screaming into a pillow? Talking to Teddy Ruxpin?).

    The business model of online media I fear only incentivizes this stuff though…

  5. Seth says

    I propose creating a retweet bot that retweets harassing tweets at the developers and moderators of the service. Of course, they’ll take action against the ‘spam’, but if it’s done often and publicly enough, they’ll eventually have to keep owning their shit over and over, hopefully enough to DO something about the problem.

    For my part, I don’t tweet, and never will.

  6. johnthedrunkard says

    ‘…social networks can begin to serve harassed users by hiring more employees…’

    Don’t hold your breath, because Free Market means squeezing the last penny of potential profit from every single transaction. No matter what the long-term cost.

    Paying a living wage to a dozen new hires? Nah! Stonewalling an avalanche of lawsuits and enriching your lawyers? Sure!

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