7 Ways Twitter Can Stop Harassment
This week, “Ghostbusters” star Leslie Jones was driven off Twitter by a tide of horrific racist harassment spearheaded by Milo Yiannopoulos, who is notorious for leading similar hate mobs.
“I leave Twitter tonight with tears and a very sad heart. All this cause I did a movie. You can hate the movie but the shit I got today…wrong,” Jones wrote. The rest of her feed serves as a grim testimony to the worst parts of online culture.
To be black, successful and female is to represent a triple threat that makes you a sizable target for harassers, and Twitter should have stepped in long before the abused reached its height.
In the immediate wake of terrible publicity, Twitter did two things. It formally banned Yiannopoulous – as opposed to just suspending his account — and announced that it would open up the verification process to all users. This will allow anyone who can prove notability to apply directly, rather than waiting for a blue check mark to be dispensed from higher-ups.
It’s unclear why verification would be helpful, given that Yiannopoulos was at one point verified himself before Twitter took the unusual move of stripping the privilege due to his pattern of harassment.
Additionally, the so-called “real name” policies don’t seem to make much of a difference when it comes to harassment — though they do drive away users operating pseudonymously for safety.
These kinds of token moves come as bitter pills for many users, who have watched Twitter fail to act through Gamergate, countless attacks on women of color and a contentious presidential campaign cycle.
Long-time users question why the site can roll out endless new “features” without doing anything about abuse and wonder why the company seems powerless.
So here are some suggestions for Twitter:
1. IP banning
The specific nature of Twitter’s ban on Yiannopoulos isn’t clear – but if it’s not an IP ban, it should be.
Simply deleting and refusing to restore an account isn’t enough, considering that someone can just as easily start a new one. IP bans make it impossible for people to access Twitter from a given IP address or range of IPs. While individuals may try access Twitter from a different location, these bans are still a significant improvement.
Once a user has been IP banned, if other users report abuse and indicate that it’s being perpetrated by a theoretically banned user, Twitter must take serious steps to investigate, delete the offending account and add the user’s new IP or IP range to its block list.
2. Take doxing seriously
“Doxing,” in which people dig up and distribute personally identifying information — including full legal names, phone numbers, addresses, financial account information, Social Security numbers, names and addresses of families and more — is a serious threat.
Doxing people can lead to physical violence, and it’s often paired with campaigns that attempt to get people fired or kicked out of events.
Twitter is often very sluggish on doxing reports, and sometimes refuses to recognize it as such. It may also demand that users provide personally identifying information to prove they are who they claim to be, which is rather paradoxical.
3. Take secondary abuse reports seriously
Twitter’s abuse reporting mechanism finally allows people to report any abuse when they see it, even if it’s not targeting them specifically.
That means that if you spot a racist tirade directed at, for example, a prominent black female comedian, you can report it to Twitter’s abuse team.
Unfortunately, Twitter doesn’t necessarily give such reports very much credence. While abuse reports could theoretically be used as a form of harassment — reporting an innocent tweet repeatedly in an attempt to get a user suspended or banned — Twitter’s caution when it comes to taking secondary abuse reports seriously clearly goes beyond that legitimate concern.
In 2014, Women, Action, Media actually conducted a study on Twitter abuse, analyzing 811 submitted reports and notified the company about more than 150. Twitter took action on barely half of these secondary abuse reports vetted by a high profile feminist organization, and notably, reports of doxing tended to be taken less seriously.
If WAM can’t get Twitter to take abuse seriously, how can @butterflylover92?
4. Accept screenshots of abusive material
Twitter is highly ephemeral. A tweet that’s here now may be gone a minute later.
Abusive individuals take advantage of this tactic, pulling tweets down as soon as they think they might be reported in a “tweet and delete” strategy. Historically, Twitter has taken the stance that if it can’t be seen, it doesn’t exist.
The site should accept user-submitted screenshots, or automatically take screenshots when abusive material is reported. In strict point of fact, true deletion is a bit of a myth on Twitter — those deleted tweets are still around, they’re just not visible.
Screenshots can act as an important secondary record to prove that abuse really did happen.
5. Crack down on fake tweet generators
One tactic harassers used against Jones was simply Photoshopping her own account to make it look like she said horrific things and disseminating the resulting “screenshots.”
However, some were a little craftier, turning instead to websites that generate fake Tweets. The result spoofs users, so it looks like a Tweet originated from them, even though it didn’t.
Twitter certainly has the capacity to crack down on such sites. After all, they represent an intellectual property violation, and can be used for defamatory purposes.
6. Take terms of service violations seriously
Yiannopoulos didn’t pop up like a mushroom overnight. He, like many other abusive personalities on Twitter, has been steadily building up followers — and a reputation to go with them — for years.
Yiannopoulos grew more and more bold with harassment when he found out that Twitter wouldn’t do anything about it — losing a “verified” badge is hardly a punishment.
Twitter’s inaction served as a signal for other would-be harassers: It’s open season on Twitter, because Support rarely moves to suspend, let alone ban.
And Yiannopoulos didn’t just skirt along the edges of the maddeningly vague terms; he repeatedly and very categorically violated them.
7. Listen to users
For years, Twitter users have been engaged in a lively conversation about harassment and abuse — and how to stop it. Many of them have excellent ideas that Twitter should be able to implement or improve upon.
Twitter needs to start paying attention to user feedback — and not just from famous movie stars with thousands of followers. When the site identifies targets of sustained hate campaigns, employees should solicit their input.
Leslie Jones endured days of torment because Twitter refused to do anything about a highly visible incident — thousands of users were reporting and talking about her situation — and the company could have stepped in at any time. If Twitter values its users, it might want to start by asking them what they think the organization should do to combat harassment.
Photo credit: Jeff Turner