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Viewpoint: Twitter's Abuse Problem

Alex Spencer

Alex Viewpoint Twitter has an abuse problem.

This might come as a bit of a shock. I’ll understand if you need a minute to recover. To steady yourself in your seat, grab a stiff drink, or fetch an assistant with the smelling salts.

Okay, perhaps this isn’t such surprising news to you – unless, apparently, you happen to actually work at Twitter. After years of troubling reports about hate speech on the platform, the company is just now starting to get serious about tackling the problem.

“We're taking a completely new approach to abuse on Twitter. Including having a more open & real-time dialogue about it every step of the way,” co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted last week.

That was followed by the introduction of three changes to Twitter intended to combat “some of the most prevalent and damaging forms of behaviour” on the social network. A ban on creating new accounts if you’ve already been suspended from Twitter, adding a ‘safe search’ option, and reducing the visibility of ‘low-quality’ replies for users who could find themselves the target of abuse.

Being fair to Twitter, this last part is something it has been working on for a while now. Last August, it introduced ways of filtering notifications to hide the ones it considered ‘low-quality’, and bolstered them in November with better reporting tools. It also worked to stamp out some of its worst offenders, like the permanent ban of Milo Yiannopoulos last July, after he played ringleader in the harassment of Ghostbusters actor Leslie Jones. And being completely fair to Dorsey himself, the tweet was part of a wider mea culpa acknowledging that the company hasn’t been doing enough to beat the trolls.

However, to take the lead from my fellow Twitter users, I have absolutely no interest in being fair.

Twitter has to acknowledge that its platform has been pivotal in the rise of the so-called ‘alt-right’ – or, to give them their proper names, ‘nazis’ – from the initial swellings of ‘gamergate’ through the death threats received by all manner of marginalised people on Twitter. We now have a President of the United States who rode Twitter’s darker side all the way to the White House, and who continues to generates not just headlines but widespread fear through his tweets – all the while racking up the kind of engagement figures any brand would kill for.

That’s the moral imperative for making Twitter nicer, but I appreciate we’re talking business here. A more effective motivation, then, might be money.

Twitter’s abuse problem was reportedly a factor in Salesforce and Disney backing out of acquisition bids for the company last year. Bloomberg reported at the time that the House of Mouse was concerned “bullying and other uncivil forms of communication on the social media site might soil the company’s wholesome family image”. Which is fairly hard to argue with.

Then, just this week, amidst Twitter’s promises to make things better, a bill was proposed by British MPs which could see social media companies which aren’t deemed to be doing enough to combat harassment facing enormous fines. If passed into law, the Malicious Communications (Social Media) bill would give the UK’s culture secretary the power to determine whether social media companies are doing enough to filter “threatening content” – and penalise those who aren’t, to the tune of £2m or five per cent of the company’s annual global income, whichever is greater.

So, for the benefit of that unfortunate strawman to whom Twitter’s abuse problem came as surprising news – it’s not just time Twitter that started addressed its darker side. It’s not time to celebrate the few moves that have been made in the right direction, or to start looking fearfully in the direction of those fines.

It’s well past time to push back, and hard.

Because if it doesn’t, Twitter risks going from one of the most promising and interesting discussion spaces on the internet of the early 21st century, to a footnote in its history. Remembered at best, as an example of the overblown IPOs of early social media. Or at worst, as one of the tools which aided the period’s unexpected resurgence of fascism.