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Twitter takes on trolls to make itself safer for you

A set of safety-minded changes to the social media service will target abusive accounts and tweets.

Bydgoszcz, Poland, 20 June 2016: Twitter has announced the possibility of live streaming via its site. With the integration of Periscope, the popular live streaming app Twitter now has the majority of the live streaming market in its hands making rivals like Meerkat all but disappear. (Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Jaap Arriens, NurPhoto via Getty Images

Trolls, beware. Twitter's out to get you.

It may sound like mission impossible: trying to curb accounts whose sole purpose seems to be harassing other people on Twitter. But the social network's making three changes it says will get that job done by curtailing abusive tweets, potentially sensitive content and accounts that have long plagued the site.

"We stand for freedom of expression and people being able to see all sides of any topic," Ed Ho, Twitter's vice president of engineering, said in a blog post Tuesday. "That's put in jeopardy when abuse and harassment stifle and silence those voices."

The problem of harassment on Twitter stretches back years. Former CEO Dick Costolo said last week he wishes he'd put better protections in place in the site's early days. The issue flared up mightily in recent months, drawing increased scrutiny.

In one notorious case, comedian Leslie Jones briefly abandoned Twitter last summer after enduring what she called a "personal hell" of sexist and racist abuse. The company subsequently banned Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos for his ties to that incident. Last month, Twitter suspended the account of pharmaceuticals executive Martin Shkreli following harassment of a female journalist.

Twitter started giving users more control over content last November with tools to combat abuse, bullying and harassment. Last week, it added even more options for reporting abusive tweets.

In late December, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted users asking for suggestions to improve the platform in 2017. Naturally, abuse was one of four major themes that stood out.

Among the changes announced Tuesday, Twitter is taking steps to stop people from creating new accounts if they've been permanently suspended.

Twitter is also going after low-quality or potentially abusive tweets by collapsing them. This will hide certain replies while keeping more relevant parts of the conversation visible. It won't delete or block the tweets, though, so if you really want to see that liberal tears mug bot, you still can.

Third, Twitter is getting a "safe search" feature, Ho said, which "removes tweets that contain potentially sensitive content and tweets from blocked and muted accounts from search results." The content, which could include porn, abusive language or graphic and violent images will still be available, but won't clutter your search results when the feature is turned on.

The new features should give Twitter users a safer environment, said Debra Aho Williamson, an analyst with e-Marketer.

"That said, there is always the risk that the automated system will not work correctly and will misidentify abusive tweets as safe, or vice versa, or that the trolls will figure out how to get their tweets past Twitter's new safety measures," she said. "But overall, these are positive steps in the uphill battle to curb abuse."

First published Feb. 7, 8:11 a.m. PT.
Update, 9:55 a.m. PT: Adds background details and Twitter quote.
Update, 11:35 a.m. PT: Adds comments from analyst, tweets from Twitter executives and background.

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