The Many Ways Twitter Is Bad at Responding to Abuse

As it considers revising its rules, the company must decide which users it really values.
Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

Hundreds of tributes have already been written since the world learned of Robin Williams’ death by suicide on August 11. The loss of his genius and warmth was clearly a terrible blow to his fans, friends, and especially his family. His 25-year-old daughter, Zelda Williams, wrote a beautiful farewell to her father on Instagram, including a quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince:

You—you alone will have the stars as no one else has them ... In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night ... You - only you—will have stars that can laugh.

But before even 48 hours had passed since her father’s body was found, two Twitter users tweeted graphic photographs of a dead body directly at Zelda Williams, claiming that it was her father’s.

The photos were fake, but the impact on Williams was devastating. In a tweet that she later deleted, Williams pleaded for other users to report the two accounts that sent the photos: "Please report @PimpStory @MrGoosebuster. I'm shaking. I can't. Please. Twitter requires a link and I won't open it. Don't either. Please." Within a few hours Williams deactivated her Twitter account, writing in a final post, “I'm sorry. I should've risen above. Deleting this from my devices for a good long time, maybe forever. Time will tell. Goodbye.”

On Wednesday, after Zelda Williams’s horrific (and very public) torment, Twitter announced that it will revise its rules regarding abuse. (Twitter hasn't outlined how or when the rules will change.) But the Williams case hardly shocks many Twitter users, especially women, who are subjected to vicious personal abuse on a near-daily basis. The problem extends far beyond Twitter, too: Across other social media and the entire Internet, women and minorities face rampant vitriol. That social media superpowers have done so little to change this so far suggests that the abuse isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. 

Twitter, though, has structured its architecture for reporting abuse particularly poorly: It effectively rewards abusers while discouraging support, solidarity, and intervention for their victims. As Larry Lessig observed more than a decade ago, “Code is law.” The fantasy of a free, unregulated space—whether online or offline—is just that, a fantasy. Every platform has values and regulation built into its very structure, built by human designers who make choices about which values to promote and which to inhibit.

Twitter allows anyone to create an account, meaning anyone can harass other users in a way visible to the larger community. This both increases the impact of such abuse and encourages other abusers to join in the fray. Mass abuse happens fast, and targeted users can drown in a sea of abuse within minutes: The journalist Caroline Criado-Perez received one rape threat per minute after daring to suggest that a woman be featured on British currency.

By comparison, the process of reporting abuse is slow, painful, and often ineffective. By actively discouraging third parties from reporting abuse of others and makes the reporting of abuse burdensome, Twitter has set up a game that targets of abuse can never win. 

From the Twitter Help Center(Emphasis mine.)

Who can report abusive behavior on Twitter?

In order to investigate reports of abusive behaviors, violent threats or a breach of privacy, we need to be in contact with the actual person affected or their authorized representative. We are unable to respond to requests from uninvolved parties […] If you are not an authorized representative but you are in contact with the individual, encourage the individual to file a report through our forms.

In May, I had the opportunity to speak with Twitter officials on the phone about their abuse and harassment policies. I suggested that this policy of discouraging bystanders to report the abuse of others contributed to abusive practices. There is a real psychological cost, I said, to being forced to read the abusive messages. (Sometimes, the victim must read them for the first time, if the abuser did not directly tweet the abuse at his target, but regardless they must revisit them in order to provide the direct links which the Twitter abuse report requires.) This policy directly brought about Zelda Williams’ despairing reaction:

Twitter requires a link and I won’t open it. Don’t either. Please.

This policy also inhibits the larger Twitter community from engaging in positive actions of support and solidarity with the victims of harassment. Instead of bystander intervention, we get bystander silencing.

The report abuse form moreover seems almost designed to discourage reports even by direct targets of abuse. For those who haven’t used the form, a user is confronted with a series of questions about their involvement with the abuse and what kind of abuse is being reported, the answers to which generate further options (a bit like one of those old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books), followed by the aforementioned required links, description of the problem, a strangely cheery request to “Tell us about yourself,” and an electronic signature. And here’s what happens once you submit the form:

What happens when Twitter receives a valid report?

Once you have submitted your report, we will review the reported account, including the links to Tweets you’d like us to investigate. If the account is in violation of our policies, we will take action, ranging from warning the user up to permanently suspending the account.

Consider this: If it is common knowledge that only targets, not bystanders, are encouraged to submit complaints, what conclusion are abusers likely to draw about who reported them? This serves as yet another deterrent to users who fear retaliation and escalation from their abusers.

Presented by

Mary Anne Franks is an associate professor at the University of Miami School of Law and the vice-president of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative.

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