Light dawns

Twitter CEO to employees: “We suck at dealing with abuse.”

Why yes, yes you do. What was your first clue?

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo is taking personal responsibility for his platform’s chronic problems with harassment and abuse, telling employees that he is embarrassed for the company’s failures and would soon be taking stronger action to eliminate trolls. He said problems with trolls are driving away the company’s users. “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years,” Costolo wrote in an internal memo obtained by The Verge. “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.”

And you know what else? You don’t lose core trolls. Core users leave, and trolls stay. There’s a downside to that.

Costolo’s comments came in response to a question on an internal forum about a recent story by Lindy West, a frequent target of harassment on Twitter. Among other things, West’s tormentors created a Twitter account for her then recently-deceased father and made cruel comments about her on the service; West recently shared her story on This American Life and the Guardian.

Ahhhhhh, that was your first clue. I was wondering. Thanks for the clarification.

You could have paid attention a lot sooner, and avoided this embarrassment, but…

An employee on the internal forum pointed out that Twitter is “within its rights to let its platform be used as a vehicle for sexist and racist harassment” but could choose not to. It could choose to be better.

On Mon, Feb 2, 2015 at 8:35 PM, Dick Costolo wrote:

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.

I’m frankly ashamed of how poorly we’ve dealt with this issue during my tenure as CEO. It’s absurd. There’s no excuse for it. I take full responsibility for not being more aggressive on this front. It’s nobody else’s fault but mine, and it’s embarrassing.

We’re going to start kicking these people off right and left and making sure that when they issue their ridiculous attacks, nobody hears them.

Everybody on the leadership team knows this is vital.


Ok, well, now we get to hold him to it.

Twitter had made a couple of worthless passes at attempting to pretend to prepare to almost do something about it, but…

But every day, Twitter users still face threats of physical violence, sexual abuse, and stalking — all forms of harassment that disproportionately affect women online, according to data from The Pew Center.

Just last week, feminist critic Anita Sarkeesiandocumented the harassment she received on Twitter from January 20th to the 26th. You’ll have to scroll for awhile before you hit the end of tweets containing gendered insults, victim blaming, incitement to suicide, sexual violence, rape and death threats.

And lies. Don’t forget lies. There are always lies – masses of them.

We’ll see.


  1. johnthedrunkard says

    How can such businesses, which rely on automated systems without human supervision, really proactively moderate their content?

    Can a complaint system be put in place that won’t be another tool for trolls?

  2. Jenora Feuer says

    Can a complaint system be put in place that won’t be another tool for trolls?

    And that, of course, is the big issue. There’s already been some discussion of it on PZ’s article ‘It must be troll slapping day‘, particularly on how easy it would be for this to go as badly wrong in some other direction if the trolls adopt the classic schoolyard bully tactics of microagressions until the justifiable anger threshold is reached, then reporting the victim.

  3. says

    Has he confirmed it was a memo from him? Not seen any verification that he actually said this … Even so, it is pretty much the case that they don’t seem to have a clue how to solve the harassment problem.

    Personally I’d make it so –
    * People don’t get suspended, they lose their @’ing privileges. So if they @ someone who is not following them it never appears in their timeline. Sort of a reversal of the going protected which people have to do to avoid harassers at the moment.
    * Make it harder to create sock accounts to harass, new accounts by default cannot send unsolicited @’s … So you need to build your presence. Unless you verify via mobile phone or other.
    * If they use ToR, don’t verify via email etc this applies even more and they are sensitive to suspension!

  4. dshetty says

    Technically it is a challenge – The volume ensures that any fix must be algorithmic or automated – And automated systems can be gamed once you understand how they work.
    But it’s good to see the CEO acknowledge it as a problem.

  5. Crimson Clupeidae says

    Couldn’t the system be semi-automated, like facebook? The users have the ability to easily block someone. There could be a minimum threshold, determined by…length the account has been around/active, and a combination of activity and followers, maybe? Also, the users should be able to set up their account so that they have to add people to their feed. I dunno, it would never be perfect, but it could certainly be improved on.

  6. says

    I hate to sound cynical (I lie: the schadenfreude is sparking from my fingertips as I type), but he isn’t doing this because he’s just become aware of the issue, or suddenly had an attack of empathy, or because the problem is starting to get media attention. He’s doing this because the growth of Twitter’s user base has slowed.

    In _In the Beginning was the Command Line_, Neal Stephenson wrote

    Now, there might be one or two people at Microsoft who are dense enough to believe that mindshare dominance is some kind of stable and enduring position. […] But most of them must have the wit to understand that phenomena like these are maddeningly unstable, and that there’s no telling what weird, seemingly inconsequential event might cause the system to shift into a radically different configuration.

    First growth slows, then it peaks, then it starts to shrink, and suddenly Costolo is staring into the abyss. If enough users get fed up with the abuse (or something else, or, really, anything else), Twitter could vanish in a puff of indifference.

    Like that space company. You remember, somebody’s space, uh, his space, our space….Myspace, yeah, that was it. Remember Myspace? They were big once, too.

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