Every single day on Twitter, I encounter abuse and harassment in some form or another. I’m targeted for being a woman; I’m targeted for being black; I’m targeted for being a journalist; and I’m targeted for being a black woman who works for a black media organization. It’s nothing new. It’s been happening for a long time, and not just to me.
Plenty of marginalized people are subjected to harassment and abuse on the popular social media platform, and for all of our screaming, complaining, reporting and discussions on it, nothing has really been done to fix it. It’s almost as if Twitter doesn’t care.
A little over two weeks ago, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey acted like he cared.
When actress Rose McGowan had her Twitter account suspended for openly breaking one of the rules in Twitter’s terms of service, white women got upset and boycotted the platform for a day.
White women got vocal, and Dorsey was moved to action. He wrote a Twitter thread addressing the issue and claiming that the platform would begin a more strict policy enforcement as a means of staving off the abuse that so many others have been complaining about for so long.
In fact, we’ve seen people who have gone up against their abusers have their accounts suspended while the abusers themselves were left to continue their attacks against other people.
Lauren Chief Elk is a Twitter user who advocates for social justice issues. She used to tweet under the account ChiefElk until it was suspended for violating Twitter rules. She had had the “nerve” to go up against someone who was repeatedly abusing her on the platform, and instead of taking action against the abuser, Twitter punished Lauren for what was reportedly considered abuse against her abuser. Ironic, right?
In a series of tweets posted Oct. 13, Dorsey promised a more aggressive stance on the rules and how they are enforced. He said that there would be new rules around unwanted sexual advances, nonconsensual nudity, hate symbols, violent groups and “tweets that glorifies violence.”
Dorsey said that the rules would begin rolling out over the “next few weeks,” but more than two weeks since his tweets, little, if anything, had changed.
Twitter has supposedly implemented a “Trust and Safety Council” that reviews and gives feedback on its policy and product changes, but who is on this committee? Has Twitter given anyone in the community a seat at that table, especially marginalized people who have experienced the most abuse on its platform?
As recently as Sunday night, I was the target of an unsolicited nude. A man tweeted his exposed penis directly into my mentions.
When I attempted to report the tweet, I wasn’t allowed to. There is no selection for “This guy sent me his penis and I don’t want to see it.” Instead, Twitter suggested that I block him to avoid seeing his offensive tweets in the future.
This is not helpful.
Over the weekend, Donald Trump ally and confidant Roger Stone completely lost his shit and went on a tirade against CNN journalist Don Lemon and New York Times opinion writer Charles M. Blow. His rant was likely in response to the news CNN dropped Friday night that someone was going to be indicted and charged in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
In response, Twitter suspended Stone’s account indefinitely, which surprised many. Trump goes on the same types of rants all the time, and his account is still very active. There have been many calls for Trump’s account to be suspended, but Twitter has waffled on that.
When Donald Trump basically declared war on North Korea, many asked why the tweet wasn’t removed and his account suspended. In a series of tweets, the official Twitter policy account said that the tweet was left to stand because of its “newsworthiness.” It was considered to be a tweet of “public interest.”
The company issued a series of tweets:
- “We hold all accounts to the same Rules, and consider a number of factors when assessing whether tweets violate our rules.”
- “Among the considerations is ‘newsworthiness’ and whether a Tweet is of public interest.”
- “This has long been an internal policy and we’ll soon update our public-facing rules to reflect it. We need to do better on this, and will.”
- “Twitter is committed to transparency and keeping people informed about what’s happening in the world.”
- “We’ll continue to be guided by these fundamental principles.”
The emphasis in the second-to-last tweet is my own because it’s important.
Yes, Twitter has terms of service that we all agree to when we sign up to use the platform. But while those may be the rules, the transparency is lost in the interpretation of them.
Simply put, there is no transparency in the interpretation, and there seems to be no transparency in just how or against whom the rules will be applied and enforced.
In the case of Roger Stone, although that particular account has been suspended, TechCrunch reports that he has at least two other separate accounts from which he is actively tweeting, and that, in and of itself, is another concern that people have brought to the table.
When an abuser or troll is suspended, there is nothing that stops that person from creating multiple accounts from which to continue the abuse. He or she can have an infinite number of accounts and infinite ways to inflict harm. This is something Twitter has either not taken into consideration or does not consider to be a real issue. But it is a huge part of the problem.
Caroline O. does research in the area of behavioral science, including regarding social media platforms. She tweets under the handle @RVAwonk. She told The Root that Twitter’s problem with enforcing rules around harassment may stem from the fact that it has no idea what to do, and the company isn’t listening to those who might help it figure it out.
“They deal with the problem one user and one incident at a time, and they wait to act until after the fact (if they act at all),” she said. “They do absolutely nothing to try to prevent people who are banned from coming right back with an identical account, with one character changed in their handle.”
Caroline said that in a recent incident of abuse she experienced, the original Twitter handle targeting her was “LagunaBeachAntifa.” After getting banned, the account came back with a number added to the handle. When that got banned, the Twitter user simply continued to create new accounts just by adding a different number to the handle. At the time she spoke with The Root, the iteration of the account harassing her was “LagBeachAntifa4.”
“So they’ve been banned repeatedly, and Twitter is doing nothing to stop them from coming right back,” Caroline said. “They’re part of a network of fake antifa accounts that I helped unravel about six months ago, and they’ve been harassing me ever since then.”
She said that Twitter needs to recognize patterns: “Harassment doesn’t happen in isolated incidents; it happens repeatedly, and it often involves the same network(s). If I can pick up on those patterns, I know Twitter can, too.”
But maybe Twitter doesn’t want to. Trolls, after all, add to the overall number of users on Twitter, and the number of users on the platform affects the business’s bottom line—for better or for worse.
Rod Morrow, co-host of The Black Guy Who Tips podcast, which regularly analyzes the tech industry, said he believes that trolls and abuse are a big part of the reason Twitter wasn’t picked up for sale late last year.
“They were being targeted by some major companies for purchase last year, but ultimately the biggest prospective buyer walked away from the table,” Morrow told The Root. “They have a lack of growth and a genuine problem with harassment on the platform. I think that’s why they have to deal with harassment first and foremost for their own sake.”
When Dorsey published his thread of tweets discussing the supposed rules and enforcement that would be put into place earlier this month, Morrow said he felt that the move was dictated by Twitter’s need to make itself a more viable product.
“It’s definitely not altruism,” he said.
“I don’t think Twitter brass is interested in getting rid of harassment because that is a large part of their user base. And up until the bidding process went belly up, Twitter had been using raw numbers as their main selling points,” Morrow said. “Like, ‘We have ‘blank’ amount of users and they make ‘blank amount of tweets.’ But that’s garbage data, really. Especially when you allow trolls to accumulate multiple accounts to harass certain targets. How do you even monetize that?
“In addition to the numbers being fraudulent, you’re also not going to be able to sell them anything,” he added.
Morrow said he believes that if Twitter does not fix the problem, something better will come along because anything that cannot be monetized will ultimately be dissolved. His said his main concern is that when and if Twitter does decide to get on the ball and enforce rules, it will come at the expense of—or even target—marginalized people.
“Similar to Facebook’s ‘ban’ system, banning a lot of activists and marginalized people who are vocal about their experiences. Who is going to be the decision-maker behind what is deemed harassment on this platform?” Morrow continued. “If it’s the same people who have been making decisions for Twitter, then I don’t see anything changing. Jack said this has been a priority since 2016. Does it feel like they’ve made progress to you? It certainly doesn’t to me.”
Mike Monteiro is a designer with Mule in San Francisco. He has been actively calling out Twitter on the harassment and abuse issue, sometimes to the utter embarrassment of Twitter brass. He told The Root that he believes it is the fault of Twitter’s leadership that the platform has become overrun with “Nazis” and trolls and abusers.
“This is the platform that gave rise to Donald Trump. They had every opportunity and responsibility to shut him down and they didn’t do it,” Monteiro said. “Donald Trump has broken every term in the Twitter terms of service. Jack and company chose to let him do that. They chose to let him keep doing it.”
Monteiro points to Twitter’s operations in Germany as an example of its inaction against harassment, abusers and Nazis in the United States.
Germany has an anti-hate-speech rule. It’s against the law to say positive things about Nazis, display swastikas, etc. In order for Twitter to operate in Germany, it has had to identify all the accounts and all of the tweets that would not be allowed in Germany. In fact, if you go into your settings and switch your location from the U.S. to Germany, those people will all disappear from your feed.
It seems like it would be an easy fix for Twitter to flip that same switch here in the U.S., but Monteiro said he believes that will never happen.
“If they flip the switch, white people would be upset,” Monteiro said. “They are willing to let people get harassed and abused as long as it doesn’t fall back on them.”
Monteiro said that the only reason Dorsey tweeted Oct. 13 about increasing enforcement of Twitter rules is the McGowan incident, and it upset him enough to act.
“Don’t let people buy into the idea that Jack [Dorsey] actually did something. He didn’t. He didn’t do anything,” Monteiro said.
He said that for the most part, Twitter considers what is going on to be “free speech.”
“The people crowing loudest about it being free speech are white boys,” Monteiro said. “They have never been abused, harassed or threatened to be raped, or been doxxed. Where’s your free speech when you are silencing 50 percent of the population?”
Monteiro said that he believes the first step in fixing Twitter’s problems is to get rid of Dorsey altogether, and the person who replaces him should send a message.
“It won’t do any good to replace him with a white libertarian man; it won’t mean anything,” Monteiro said.
In the meantime, he suggested that we all continue to call out Twitter every single day every time something happens. This is the only way to get the company to make effective changes.
Unfortunately, this is what a lot of us have already been doing, and nothing effective has happened.
Twitter hasn’t changed because Twitter doesn’t want to change, and that is the basis of the problem.
Journalist Jamie Nesbitt Golden summed it up best when she told The Root: “Jack’s new policy will do nothing to erase the harm that’s already happened. Every day, people of color and allies are being hit with suspensions and, in rare cases, bans for daring to defend themselves from agitators who know they won’t be punished.
“As long as white supremacists are given a platform to spread hate and disinformation, nothing will change,” she continued, “and said policies will continue [to] disproportionately affect marginalized people.”