“Honeypot for assholes” is accurate, but probably didn’t make it past Twitter’s marketing department

Buzzfeed has been generating some genuinely informative articles lately — it’s become much more than a clickbait site. This article on Twitter’s colossal failure to police itself is a great example. Twitter has had this ongoing harassment problem practically since its founding, the founders knew it, and they have done nothing about it.

By March 2008, exhausted and disillusioned by a torrent of tweets calling her a “cunt” and a “whore” and publicizing personal information like her email address, Waldman reached out to Twitter again, this time to the company’s CEO, Jack Dorsey. After a series of phone calls to the company went nowhere, Dorsey and Twitter went silent. So in May, Waldman went public, detailing her ordeal in a blog post, which caught fire in media circles.

Twitter, then still a startup, was fresh off a buzzy SXSW debut, and Waldman’s post was an unfamiliar bit of bad press, depicting Dorsey in particular as an unsympathetic, even cowardly, chief executive. “Jack explained that they’re scared to ban someone because they’re scared if it turned into a lawsuit that they are too small of a company to handle it,” Waldman wrote. While Twitter founder Biz Stone issued a formal acknowledgment of the problem, arguing that “Twitter is a communication utility, not a mediator of content,” Dorsey was silent. Co-founder Ev Williams was more critical, posting tweets that cast doubt on Waldman’s claims and halfheartedly apologizing with a simple “our bad.”

More than eight years after Waldman’s ordeal, harassment on Twitter is rampant — so much so that it has become a primary destination for trolls and hate groups. So much so that its CEO declared, “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years.” So much so that numerous high-profile users have quit the service, citing it as an unsafe space. Today, Twitter is a well-known hunting ground for women and people of color, who are targeted by neo-Nazis, racists, misogynists, and trolls, often just for showing up. Just this summer, actor Leslie Jones was driven off Twitter after a barrage of racist comments and death threats, only to return after a personal reassurance from Dorsey himself. Last week, Normani Kordei of the pop group Fifth Harmony also stepped away from the service after suffering years of “horrific and racially charged” tweets. Despite its integral role in popular culture and in social justice initiatives from the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter, Twitter is as infamous today for being as toxic as it is famous for being revolutionary. And unless you’re a celebrity — or, as it turns out, the president of the United States of America — good luck getting help.

Part of this problem is a gross ideological commitment to “free speech” — which isn’t really what anyone means by free speech. It ought to mean a commitment to refusing to favor one political or social position over any other, but instead, it’s become about allowing anyone to vomit shit freely, everywhere, so that raw useless noise dominates over any signal. Dogmatic free speech purists actually diminish the availability of free speech by prioritizing the protection of garbage over information and even friendly discussion. And it clearly is a weird philosophical absolutism by a few of the founders.

This maximalist approach to free speech was integral to Twitter’s rise, but quickly created the conditions for abuse. Unlike Facebook and Instagram, which have always banned content and have never positioned themselves as platforms for free speech, Twitter has made an ideology out of protecting its most objectionable users. That ethos also made it a beacon for the internet’s most vitriolic personalities, who take particular delight in abusing those who use Twitter for their jobs. This spring, the Just Not Sports podcast posted video of sports fans reading a sampling of the hateful tweets that the sportswriters Sarah Spain and Julie DiCaro received while writing and reporting. The video amassed over 3.5 million views on YouTube. Its message: This level of depravity is commonplace on Twitter.

Every useful medium has limitations on what can be said. Your local newspaper will not freely post letters to the editor that contain the kinds of sexual and racist slurs that I get every day on Twitter. There are always limits. They are necessary to maintain the utility of the communication channel. You would think an organization that is solely dedicated to promoting communication would understand this.

But here’s another clue about what makes them so oblivious.

Looking back on Twitter’s early years, multiple former senior employees cite Twitter’s disproportionately white, male leadership — a frequent, factual critique of Silicon Valley’s biggest and most influential tech companies — as creating an environment where building tools to combat harassment was a secondary concern. “The original sin is a homogenous leadership,” one former senior employee told BuzzFeed News. “This is part of what exacerbated the abuse problem for sure — because they were often tone-deaf to the concern of users in the outside world, meaning women and people of color.”

I predict that the white men behind Twitter also have a number of Libertarian twits with a sophomoric, privileged view of the world.

Another revelation is that Twitter has automated filtering tools to block out the worst sorts of trolls, and that these were deployed to the benefit of Barack Obama and Caitlyn Jenner when they did a Q&A on the medium. They aren’t perfect — they never are, and trolls will evolve their behavior to evade filtering — but it isn’t clear why they only provide this benefit for a tiny number of celebrities. I would love to have such a service switched on for me. Ariel Waldman probably would, too.

Waldman, like every single one of the dozen people interviewed for this story, stressed that she loved Twitter; that when it works as it should, it’s empowering, exciting, even life-changing. But, like almost every participant in this story, Waldman’s voice grew tired while making excuses for Twitter’s shortcomings. “I mean, the thing is that it’s just getting to that point where it’s become such an exhausting service to use,” she said with a heavy sigh. “That blocking 20 awful people every day has to be a part of my logistical reality — even when I’m not seeking abuse out. It’s just — it feels like so much work to use Twitter, and that should be a real red flag. They’ve clearly showed they don’t want to make abuse a priority.

“It’s like, who would reasonably want to use a service that does this to you?”

So far today, I’ve only blocked two obnoxious trolls, which is a light day (who knows, though, it’s still early). But she’s asked a good question: why do I have to chop through so much dead wood every day just to use their simple service?


  1. says

    I’d be surprised if most of the services don’t have some kind of internal/support-only filtering system for abuse.


    So it’s nice they’re talking about allowing some simplistic filtering. That’s so primitive, though. There ought to be a much richer set of primitives available, such as “only allow comments from people who are friends of my special friends list” or “only allow comments from people who I’ve already allowed comments from” etc. It’s not complicated to code that sort of thing and since it’s in the submit process it parallellizes beautifully and has relatively small dependencies on the rest of the system.

    The social media developers have just been lazy. If you’re developing a social platform and you don’t think about social problems how good a social platform are you building? (Well, actually, they’re building an ad platform and luring people into it with the premise of being able to say their important thoughts on the corner soapbox in the virtual park)

  2. says

    Maybe somebody should start up a new social media website with a similar idea to Twitter, posts of only a short length, maybe 150 characters if we wanna be crazy, but then it actually polices people and will remove those who are being terrible and very terrible. Suddenly Twitter has competition and if things go well it’s populated only by terrible trolls and other such jerks and it implodes.

    I wouldn’t know where to start. Anyone know any entrepreneurs?

  3. says

    Abuse and harassment are Twitter’s business model. Tweeting at people, not matter what it is or if the recipients want it or not, is “engagement”. Every new sock puppet is a “new user”, allowing them to demonstrate growth.

  4. blf says

    why do I have to chop through so much dead wood every day just to use their simple service?

    From the BBC (2013), e.g.: Ad dollars (e.g, “promoted tweets”), selling tweets for data analysis (the “firehose”),…

    Generating / viewing lots of crud is built-into their business model.

  5. robro says

    The rumor around SF is that Twitter is having financial problems. Reports are in the news that they are unloading some of the office space they have leased. Perhaps their decline is partly the result of loosing eyeballs, in addition to the bad management of growing too fast.

  6. says

    That’s why I just can’t bring myself to spend time activating my account. I know it would help bring people to Affinity and all that, but right now, the assholes are pretty much leaving Affinity (and me) alone, and I’m seriously loathe to open myself up on Twitter. Maybe most of the time I could cope with it, but times like now, where I am stone broke, trying to deal with seriously high pain levels while not taking enough meds (can’t ransom them from the pharmacy until next week), and plenty of regular life stressors, there’s no way I’d be able to deal with such shit.

  7. kiptw says

    @Duth Olec

    Maybe somebody should start up a new social media website with a similar idea to Twitter, posts of only a short length, maybe 150 characters if we wanna be crazy, but then it actually polices people and will remove those who are being terrible and very terrible.

    That’s the kind of challenge that would get them into action. Within a day of them announcing the new service, Twitter would have a response: “160 characters! Not counting smileys!”

  8. paulparnell says

    The thing is free speech technically only applies to government. It is a negative liberty created by a limitation on government power. It is not legally binding on twitter. In fact twitter’s right to limit speech is an expression of their free speech.

    Now twitter may may choose to support free speech but in doing so they remove the right to remove trolls and other bad actors. Or they can have standards of conduct. That is their right and maybe even their responsibility but what it is not is free speech for their users.

    This is a conundrum for twitter because any attempt to manage speech will be seen as bias and cause people to turn away. Yet pure free speech entitles so many assholes that they take over. I see no solution to this so I don’t do twitter. I thought it was a bad idea the first time I heard of it.

  9. freemage says

    Personally, I feel like the mere existence of a Terms of Service is an implicit promise to enforce those terms on other users who violate them. Could a user who failed to gain sufficient protection from harassers sue them for breach of contract? Even if they couldn’t prove damages, the bad publicity and cost of the trial itself would be a means of forcing them to reconsider their glibertarian ethos a bit.

  10. Scientismist says

    When I was a kid in the 50’s, I grew up in a house next to a creek that went mostly dry in the summer. I would walk the creek bed, hopping from rock to rock, sometimes traveling for miles. As a 12-14 year-old, I learned a lot from the short messages written in chalk on the concrete under the highway and railroad bridges — obscenities, nasty personal slanders targeted at nobody I knew, and the ever-popular “You Must Be Born Again.” I quickly learned never to repeat anything I read there within hearing of my Mom or Dad. I got out of the habit of creek-bed walking when summers started getting dry enough that the water flow stopped entirely, as a lot of rural homes in those days dumped raw sewage straight into the stream bed. I found that the same kind of stuff was on the walls of the latrines in the strawberry fields (where a kid could still get summer work, earning a small fortune of a couple hundred dollars in a season of 5 or 6 weeks).

    So Twitter is not really anything new.

  11. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re 10:
    good points. It always baffles me how people take Constitutional restrictions on government actions and flip them around to apply to every citizen. Such as the “free speech” [scare quotes] amendment. IT was put in there to prevent very specific abuse of government power which could prevent publication of opposing view points. It is not a law requiring every publisher to publish every viewpoint presented to them.
    A law closing down FauxNoise would be unconstitutional (though sorely needed). But stations refusing to broadcast FauxNoise do not violate the Constitution.
    The Constitution is the law governing the government, it is not a law governing citizens.

    ugh…time to step off my soapbox and find a decent lecture hall…

  12. Scientismist says

    slithey tove # 13:

    to prevent very specific abuse of government power

    Yep. Back in the ’50’s I also learned civics in High School, and the Constitution was even part of grammar school history classes. I sometimes wonder if they still teach it in schools today. But even back then, the contrast between what the document said and what adults seemed to think it said, going by what was in the newspapers, was striking. I made that part of a speech I gave when I was in the eighth grade, in a contest sponsored by the DAR. They didn’t seem happy with me. I think I shocked them.

  13. wzrd1 says

    So far today, I’ve only blocked two obnoxious trolls, which is a light day (who knows, though, it’s still early). But she’s asked a good question: why do I have to chop through so much dead wood every day just to use their simple service?

    Considering the platform *and* content, I wonder that each and every day.
    Most days, I honestly consider abandoning it, however, industry peers remind me it’s “Oh, so important”.
    Frankly, fuck them, more noise than signal, screw the useless thing.
    I’ll simply await an excuse, should take a day or so, as it’s bedtime for me. I do work midnight shift, voluntarily.
    One can’t ask others to do what one would not do!

  14. blf says

    Scientismist@14, Yeeeech gads, don’t get me started on the loonies in the DAR. An example I just stumbled across, American Heritage Group Pushes Radical Theocratic Class on Constitution (Sept-2013):

    [… I]n Ohio, the Daniel Cooper chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) wanted to do something special this year to commemorate the [Constitution]. But what? The group wasn’t exactly sure. “I haven’t read the Constitution since high school, many decades ago,” chapter head Betsey Taylor told Hatewatch[(SPLC)].

    Probably most Americans could make the same confession, so the women of the Daniel Cooper chapter decided to take a 12-week Constitution course and invite everyone […]. The class Daniel Cooper has signed up for and is promoting is a highly controversial lecture series offered by the far-right Institute on the Constitution (IOTC).

    IOTC was founded by Michael Peroutka, a Maryland lawyer who sits on the board of the League of the South, a racist neo-Confederate group that advocates for a second Southern secession and a society dominated by “European Americans.” The league wants to form a “godly” nation, run by an “Anglo-Celtic” (read: white) elite that would establish a Christian theocratic state and politically dominate black people and other minorities. Peroutka was also the 2004 presidential candidate of the Constitution Party, a far-right, theocratic third party.

  15. lanir says

    Never saw a whole lot of point in twitter so I never signed up. I wholly agree with Marcus Ranum about the ease of implementing a system to protect people from undesired associations. I think it’s not so much that people say mean things about you online that’s the harassment problem. The problem is when you’re stuck being confronted with it* and it gets indelibly associated with you because it’s right there in the same context as your message. Twitter seems to fail at both of those badly and there really isn’t any particular need for that to happen. Even their ideology doesn’t require it. As it stands they’re more about free confrontation than free speech. You get the former even if what you want is the latter.

    * I realize that negative comments can be so pervasive that you’re essentially stuck confronting them even if you don’t choose to do so. This is a much more complex situation that doesn’t have an easy answer for any single platform provider.

  16. wzrd1 says

    @lanir, with all due respect, you’ve not been called up at work by your wife, panicked over her reading, in passing, a not only death threat, but a rape of one’s entire female family, then murder by vivisection threat.
    I’ve received two such calls.
    I’ll attribute the lower number to my spectacular response that I’ve employed with foreign terrorists, a far, far more violent response.
    That isn’t how one employs a civil society, it’s how one deploys a failed nation, such as Somalia. Terrorists threaten, then carry out threats that they think that they’ll get away with.
    I didn’t counterthreat the former Soviet Union, menace Iraq before we actually did invade them and fight Iraqi and Afghan insurgents, that’s using their methods!
    Coming home to find that acceptable, both my wife and I are both sorry that we repatriated, but also sorry that we didn’t bring our children and grandchildren abroad, to civilized nations!

    For, after coming home, I’ve had an antivaxer type, not only dox me, but the follow forth with a threat to invade my home, kill everyone there, rape my wife, then kill me.
    Annoyed, I explained to him, had he attempted such, as primary caregiver to my father, I’d be forced to consider utilizing an edged weapon or firearm and if feeling charitable, going with the firearm and charitable was unlikely in the extreme, leaving me to vivisect him while he attempted an attack.
    I was being very literal and honest, as I’m infamous for my candor.
    That I’d be violently ill after is irrelevant. Family is the most important thing to me after survival of my nation, something I swore an oath to protect before many readers here were born.
    While my term of service has expired, I’ve never considered my oath to have an expiration date, be it my term of military service in protection of this land, Constitution and people or my oath to be faithful to my wife over well over 34 years.
    While, I do have to walk limpingly, due to a recent injury, I can still aim a blade or firearm as required.

    I am, when met casually or in company of peers a really nice guy, one and all find that so, my wife, she tends to be loved by all who meet her, even above me and rightfully so.
    There’s also a monster inside, the one born out of war.
    I prefer that buried, however, when there’s a threat to those who I treasure, I’m happy to let that beast roam and do its harm. A harm previously only slightly unleashed in time of war.

    Frankly, I far prefer peace and quite, interchange of ideas, even highly spirited debates. But, some SOB’s want to threaten violence. Worse, motherless SOB’s want to act out with violence.
    It’s why we all can’t have nice things.
    Pity, we, overwhelmingly like nice things.
    Alas, we lest the motherless types try to force their way upon one and all, this election is a fine example of that.
    Making us all sorry that we returned to this failing nation.
    We do far better in Qatar!

  17. says

    @kiptw #8: Well, getting Twitter to respond to a 150-character limit with 160 is actually a bit of the point. If it shows that Twitter focuses more on the superficial improvements than actually making it better for people, then maybe people who want a decent time will notice the place that actually focuses on that.

    Also there’s the idea of putting the new website to the limits of what would constitute a good idea. Put the character limit at a point where any higher and it would just get annoying (or Facebook, which I usually assume is the same thing).

    Wait, am I thinking like capitalism? I need to go take a shower now.

  18. kiptw says

    @Duth Olec #19
    Superficial indeed. Thanks for getting it! Sometimes I worry I’m not expressing myself.

  19. gijoel says

    @6 I guess there isn’t that much money in advertising to hateful idiots who are too antisocial to hold down a job.

  20. Dunc says

    I’m with Tabby Lavalamp@#3: it’s not an oversight, and they’re not just oblivious over-privileged t twits – it’s a core element of the business model. (Such as it is.) There is a market for tools which enable abuse, and they’ve decided to supply it.

  21. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Every useful medium has limitations on what can be said.

    I would argue for the case of physical letters by post office, this is practically false. The only words inside of an envelopment that they will not ship are words which would give them civil or criminal liability. I argue that common carrier like the post office, and ISPs, should be obliged, by law, to maintain this level of free speech absolutism. Obviously, the first amendment and the constitution does not require this proposed policy. Obviously, Twitter is not a common carrier, and so I do not expect nor demand free speech absolutism from Twitter. Obviously, I do not expect common carriers to be required to transmit messages that constitute harassment.

  22. says

    Let me try to re-frame my original comment. The details stand, but:

    The premise of a site like Twitter or Facebook or whatever is “social media” – yet, they lack the actual aspects of social interaction that allow us to survive in the real world.
    – In the real world I can go someplace where only my friends can talk to me.
    – In the real world I can only take phone calls from my friends.
    – In the real world I can ask one of my friends to please stop telling me about the clever thing their friend the libertarian said about politics. And if they don’t, I can quietly disappear them and their clever friend from my life.
    – In the real world I can allow some of my friends to bring one of their friends to visit – and if I decide I don’t like that person I can shuffle them along and maybe quietly revoke my permission for that friend to bring other people.
    – In the real world I can choose to avoid talking politics with libertarians. It’s like trying to teach a pig how to waltz; you both get frustrated and the pig resents you.
    – In the real world I can avoid a crowd of people carrying “Trump for president” signs (hopefully!)
    – In the real world I don’t have to worry about 100,000 people jumping me at once in a dark alley, the most I usually need to think about is 1 or 2 or 3, and the dark alleys are clearly visible

    Social media lacks those crucial social tools that would make it, you know, social.

    It’s probably because the people who built the sites were too busy worrying about how to capture banner ad revenue and keep their poorly-designed and badly implemented code from getting hacked to pieces. Those are legitimate concerns.

    If someone modelled a social media site that had easy interfaces for creating and managing circles of friends, it might take off. I’ll note that Google + appeared to be trying to do exactly that, and it appeared to die because there is a certain class of people (I think of them as “the shouting class”) who want you to hear their important message whether you want to, or not. The shouting class will not tolerate a system in which you can tell them to fuck off and make it work. So if such a system arises, they’ll shout about the system, too – or worse. (I consider marketing people, sociopathic hackers, and social media passive/aggressive abusers to comprise the shouting class)

  23. qwints says

    @marcus ranum, good points – though hordes of callers could effectively prevent you from using your phone effectively in a similar manner to Twitter. Businesses at the center of social media storms often experience that effect. And the real world has people who spray paint bigotry on people’s homes and cars.

    Ultimately I think you’re right that it’s a cultural thing that has resulted from the design decisions of companies seeking to maximize users over providing a desirable user experience.

  24. Ichthyic says

    Define “real world”.

    indeed. online communication is at least as important as meatspace communication is any more, and the spaces people create online for themselves is often MORE important to them than their meatspace counterpart.

    I just don’t think humanity has caught up with how fast “reality” has changed, but we better get it figured out a lot faster than we are now.

  25. lanir says

    @wzrd1 #18:

    I think you missed my point because what you said is a straw man argument. No amount of gory details will change what I said. Especially when those details seem to indicate that something I clearly stated I was against happened. Your example showed a message that went from a jerk to your wife. That’s the part that should be more difficult. You didn’t mention this being posted on a billboard or being scrawled all over many places on the internet so I can only assume this was a direct message that you mention was repeated.

    When you’re talking about a problem with a delivery system making undesirable messages too easy to pass along, the problem is the delivery system. Focusing on the message doesn’t fix it. Some people will always want to be awful people. You just try to limit how easily they can do it at your expense. Stopping them from being able to directly target you is a pretty effective way of doing that and a lot more practical than trying to control their actions enough to stop them from saying things you don’t want said.

  26. snuffcurry says

    Marcus Ranum @ 24

    The premise of a site like Twitter or Facebook or whatever is “social media” – yet, they lack the actual aspects of social interaction that allow us to survive in the real world […]
    If someone modelled a social media site that had easy interfaces for creating and managing circles of friends, it might take off.

    You mention Facebook, but Facebook already has self-moderating private, closed, and secret groups and what you’re describing as spaces for members-only or circles-of-friends have existed on the interwebs for a long time, in the form of fora, chatrooms, private viewing and/or participating by-invitation-only blawgging platforms, etc. And, as you say, these proved and still prove to be wildly popular because they’re serving a real purpose.

    But their very existence does not excuse or make up for social media platforms that do not develop or honor their policies regarding prohibited conduct. Besides which, offline experiences in public spaces are not rosy or free from harassment and abuse, even–depending on what country we live in–when such behavior is illegal. Hence the need for safe spaces to speak to one another and to hold demonstrations without fear of being attacked in the so-called “real world.” Because, of course, ToS on-line have been explicitly modeled after codes of conduct created for off-line spaces, not the other way ’round. The internet didn’t invent the need, language, or application for those.