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?