Four More Solutions to Twitter Harassment

Four More Solutions to Twitter Harassment February 9, 2015


The CEO of Twitter, Dick Costolo, made headlines last week when he admitted in a leaked memo that his service has a serious harassment problem which they’ve done a terrible job of dealing with:

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.

Twitter has a history of unresponsiveness to the complaints of many people, especially women, who are targeted by violent threats and other trollish abuse. In the worst case, these messages can be outright terrifying. But even when they’re not, fending off a constant torrent of filth and malice exacts a heavy toll – in time, energy and emotional resources. (As just one example, here’s a single week’s worth of hateful, harassing messages sent to Anita Sarkeesian.)

The situation was so bad that many people, including me, questioned whether their management even recognized they had a problem, much less how serious it is. This memo is proof that at least they’re aware of it. But while Costolo repeatedly promised to address the problem, it’s less clear what changes he plans to make. If nothing comes of this, it wouldn’t be the first time a social-media company made the right noises about not tolerating harassment while taking no real action.

Well, I’m here to help. In a previous post, “The Mabus Problem“, I discussed ways to curb the rampant use of anonymous throwaway accounts that makes harassment so easy to carry out and so hard to prosecute. Today, I’d like to make some more suggestions.

Friends-of-friends notifications.

One of the things that makes Twitter distinctive is its lack of hierarchy – its flatness. Its Notifications feed lists every tweet that you together in the same place. This means that anyone can have a conversation with anyone else without restriction. But it also means there’s no good way to screen out thuggish trolls’ abusive messages and cyber-stalking. To see what people are saying to you or about you, you have to be exposed to all the bad, as well as the good.

I propose that Twitter should split this into two tiers: an “All Notifications” feed, which shows everyone who mentions you as before, and a “Friends of Friends” feed, which only shows tweets if you follow that person or if you follow someone who follows them. With no additional effort required, this would make it easier to curate your mentions: to see only the ones that are likely to be useful, and to screen out, if you choose, the no-name trolls who only want to cause trouble.

Real people only.

One suggestion that’s sometimes made to curb harassment is that social networks should be limited to people willing to provide proof of their identity – a phone number, a credit card, or whatever – and have their real name associated with whatever they post. I don’t think this is a good idea, both because many people who use social media have valid reasons for wanting anonymity, and because this policy wouldn’t be as effective at curbing bad behavior as its advocates seem to think. (Too many victims of harassment can tell you that the police are often indifferent even when they have the harasser’s real name and location.)

But I think there might be value in a “show notifications from real accounts only” option. It wouldn’t take the protection of anonymity away from those who need it, but it would allow victims of harassment to deny abusers their foremost tool. Even if trolls continued their harassment campaigns under their real names, that would make it much easier to seek legal recourse.

Communal moderation.

Some Twitter users have dealt with upsurges in harassment by temporarily handing their accounts over to a trusted friend who’ll ignore or block hurtful or threatening messages. I see no reason why Twitter couldn’t instutionalize this solution, by making it possible to authorize other users to moderate your notifications. Your moderators could whitelist the good ones, and if you sign onto your account, you’d only see the messages that had been approved.

See profile first.

Right now, Twitter’s blocking option is purely reactive, not preemptive. As an alternative, if you receive a message from an account you don’t follow, you should have the option to view that user’s profile first, and then choose to block or mute them preemptively without ever seeing the message. This would eliminate the people who dedicate their accounts to harassment, racist or misogynist trolling, and other bad behavior.

Of course, some of the devoted trolls will try to get around this by creating phony accounts with legitimate-looking profiles, just as they’ll try various means to get around these other countermeasures. I realize there’s no perfect solution to this problem. But the point of all these ideas is to raise the bar of effort for stalkers and abusers.

Right now, social media is slanted in their favor, in that it’s far easier for them to harass than it is for their targets to prevent or screen out harassment. And that makes harassment more frequent: they do it because it’s “fun”, because it’s easy, and because it has no consequences. If it became more difficult or riskier, the serious sociopaths might not give up, but I’m confident that a vast majority of the casual trolls would. Not only would this make social media far more tolerable and usable, it would also make the worst offenders stand out more from the crowd, and that in turn would make it easier to document their behavior and take legal action against them.

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