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.