That said, it was not ignored for long: Jack Dorsey reached out to Jones after she announced she was leaving the platform, asking her to direct message him. And Twitter replied to my questions about these issues with a lengthy statement:
People should be able to express diverse opinions and beliefs on Twitter. But no one deserves to be subjected to targeted abuse online, and our rules prohibit inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others. Over the past 48 hours in particular, we’ve seen an uptick in the number of accounts violating these policies and have taken enforcement actions against these accounts, ranging from warnings that also require the deletion of Tweets violating our policies to permanent suspension.
We know many people believe we have not done enough to curb this type of behavior on Twitter. We agree. We are continuing to invest heavily in improving our tools and enforcement systems to better allow us to identify and take faster action on abuse as it's happening and prevent repeat offenders. We have been in the process of reviewing our hateful conduct policy to prohibit additional types of abusive behavior and allow more types of reporting, with the goal of reducing the burden on the person being targeted. We’ll provide more details on those changes in the coming weeks.
Permanently banning Yiannopoulos is the first step the company has taken, but it could go further, if it wanted to. Since people tweeting anonymously will just make a new account if someone blocks theirs, it could impose a strict one-phone-number-per-new-account rule. It could allow IP addresses to create only one or two new accounts per day. And it could consider expanding Twitter’s block feature, so that a user cannot @-mention someone who has blocked them.
The problem that Twitter faces isn’t an easy one to fix. There is no program or algorithm that can detect racism or malcontent. Even the best sentiment-analysis software falls down on the job, and banning slurs is too simple. But this is a burden that comes with the same publicness that Dorsey bragged about four years ago.
That’s why Twitter’s best option may not be technical at all: The company would benefit from having a team of professionally trained moderators working in its San Francisco headquarters. Led by someone who understands Twitter and public relations, this team could surveil the site for evidence of mass abuse and harassment campaigns and intervene quickly and accordingly. Working under strong leadership, and using clear and public guidelines, this team could thread the needle between corporate censorship and rampant abuse.
Whatever path it chooses, though, Twitter would do well to lean toward action. In 2011 and 2012, Twitter could claim benign influence essentially by sitting back and doing nothing. Four years later, though Twitter and other social networks continue to help organize protests and spread information among less powerful groups, they also continue to liberate those with darker motives. Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for president, has been able to spread racist and anti-Semitic messages on Twitter; and a loose collection of racists and neo-Nazis dubbing themselves the “alt-right” have chased people of color lesser known than Jones off the service. Racists and anti-Semites have been able to accrue followers on Twitter, permitting a major public resurgence of hate and abuse.
Despite repeated promises otherwise, Twitter has repeatedly failed to address the issue with the seriousness it requires. If it continues to do so, it will find itself just as implicated in this new political uprising as it was during the Arab Spring. Techno-determinism works both ways.