Last year, Twitter responded to increased attention on harassment and abuse on its website — most notably, the high-profile racist and sexist trolling of actress Leslie Jones led by alt-right poster-boy and pedophilia-sympathizer Milo Yiannopoulos — with the promise of better reporting tools for users facing threats and abuse.
But according to a Wednesday report by Mic, these tools have not been working, for one simple reason: “Improved reporting tool is futile if Twitter finds the abusive content permissible or takes a while to remove it.”
Rape threats toward women, graphic and horrific name-calling of Muslims, Black people, and other marginalized identity groups, not to mention plain scary threats of violence — when reported by users, many either face the words, “We reviewed your report carefully and found that there was no violation of Twitter’s rules regarding abusive behavior,” or wait too long to get any response at all, Mic reports.
When asked for comment by Mic, Twitter simply referred them to its Help Center page, with added emphasis on certain parts:
“Freedom of expression means little if voices are silenced because people are afraid to speak up. We do not tolerate behavior that harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence another person’s voice. If you see something on Twitter that violates these rules, please report it to us…
Some Tweets may seem to be abusive when viewed in isolation, but may not be when viewed in the context of a larger conversation. While we accept reports of violations from anyone, sometimes we also need to hear directly from the target to ensure that we have proper context.
The number of reports we receive does not impact whether or not something will be removed. However, it may help us prioritize the order in which it gets reviewed…“
Twitter, at the very least, seems to understand that violent threats and intimidation aren’t “free speech” but instead, are mechanisms that restrict the free speech of others. But Mic’s report nonetheless documents calls on young women to kill themselves, targeted harassment of African Americans as “n*ggers,” and threats against Muslims, all while Twitter users’ pleas and reports to Twitter seemed to fall on deaf ears suggesting that its Help Center page is, at the end of the day, just words.
These disturbing findings come a year after the London-based research center Demos, over the course of three weeks, discovered that more than 6,500 Twitter users in the United Kingdom were on the receiving end of 10,000 sexually explicit misogynistic tweets containing the slurs “slut” and “whore.” The study additionally found some 200,000 similar tweets were sent to 80,000 people around the world over the course of those same three weeks.
Amidst the confounding outrage over “political correctness,” better known to some as basic respect and common courtesy, young women and other recipients of abuse and harassment are told to simply ignore and not “feed the trolls.” This advice, of course, ignores the dangerous and even traumatic position this leaves so many impressionable young people in.
More than anything, these revelations speak a lot to the overarching free speech “crisis” of the 21st century. So often “political correctness” is portrayed as an apocalypse brought on by the left, all while concerns about freedom of speech are weaponized to devalue, dismiss and ultimately silence legitimate complaints made by the feminist movement about violent and abusive language.
Twitter’s inaction sends a clear message to recipients of abuse and their harassers, alike — that what’s going on is OK, and that it will continue and leave behind countless users left too afraid of cyber attacks to contribute to the dialogue. It signals a loss for free speech everywhere, and a loss traditional free speech advocates are never going to talk about.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.