Twitter, what the hell with all the harassment?

Commentary: The social network has changed the face of media and politics, but does it take harassment seriously enough? Let’s ask CEO Jack Dorsey -- together.

Ian Sherr Contributor and Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. As an editor at large at CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
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Does Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey take harassment seriously enough?

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Hey @jack. Can we talk?

This past weekend was the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, when we ask forgiveness for our transgressions and forgive others for theirs.

But this year, I was having an awfully hard time with Twitter. 

So I decided to write this open letter to you, Jack Dorsey. I figure Twitter's CEO and co-founder would be a good place to start.

You've been making moves lately that just don't make sense, and it's becoming a problem.

I'm not talking about questions of how you'll turn a profit or convince more people to join today's 328 million tweeters. And I'm certainly not worried how you'll stay relevant because, thanks to President Donald Trump, Twitter has that written all over it every day and in headlines all around the world.

I'm talking about decisions that undermine your integrity and ignore what actually matters.

Let's be frank: You need to deal with harassment. The pervasive, nonstop, everyday, all-encompassing harassment some people have been subjected to on your platform. It's the hate campaigns, the racism, the intimidation, the deadly assault and the Russian interference in the US election. All of it.

Reality is coming down hard on social networking, and no one seems more publicly oblivious than you.

When Twitter met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill last week, those problems were on full display -- though, not to the rest of us, since testimony was behind closed doors.

One senator, Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia, said the meeting was "deeply disappointing" and "showed [an] enormous lack of understanding from the Twitter team of how serious this issue is, the threat it poses to democratic institutions, and again begs many more questions than they offered."


Since you rarely say much about harassment, and the company declined to make you available for an interview, I'm going to go ahead and ask my seven questions here instead.

1. Do you even think harassment is a problem Twitter needs to solve?
Twitter may have been home to political movements like the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and #BlackLivesMatter, but it's also become a haven for divisive and evil hate campaigns.

Take what happened during last year's election. The Anti-Defamation League, a civil rights group, counted 19,000 anti-Semitic tweets targeting Jewish journalists between August 2015 and July 2016. During the same period, 2.6 million anti-Jewish tweets may have been viewed as many as 10 billion times, the ADL says.

Yep, that's a lot to monitor. But it turns out all that awfulness came from 1,600 accounts. Twitter's headcount alone is more than twice as big as that.

There are plenty of other examples of bad actors using Twitter to spew their abuse. 

There were the attacks on comedian Leslie Jones over her role in the female-led reboot of "Ghostbusters." There was the high-profile exit from your platform by Zelda Williams, a young woman whose only crime appeared to be grieving for her father, comedian Robin Williams. There's the more than three-year-long campaign of #GamerGate, in which those who complain about how woman are portrayed in video games are attacked by Twitter trolls. And there's the heartbreaking abuse of revenge porn, which, admittedly, is hard to police because Twitter allows porn on its service.

Taken as a whole, Twitter's stance on harassment can either be described as opaque or negligent.

To be fair, people who work with you say Twitter's approach to harassment has been getting better, in particular because you've amped up partnerships with high-profile hate-monitoring groups like the ADL to identify abusive behavior and help people more easily report when it starts.

But I think it's time for you, @jack, to definitively say that you believe #harassment stems from a problem with the way Twitter works and that it's something the company needs to solve.

And if you don't believe that? Well, then let us all know so we can lower our expectations.

2. When will you take your terms of service seriously?
Those awful acts I mentioned above? They routinely violate Twitter's terms of service, which ban activity like direct and indirect violent threats, harassment and hateful conduct.

So why then don't we see massive efforts in which Twitter moderators shut down accounts when they violate your rules?

Maybe Twitter's been doing it quietly, because you don't publicize how many harassers have been booted off the platform. (There are few cases I can recall of high-profile people being ousted from Twitter, such as conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and "pharma bro" Martin Shkreli.)

Perhaps you're about to ramp up your efforts?

Or maybe shutting down all those accounts would cause a dip in Twitter's active user count, a data point closely followed by investors and Wall Street.

So, of course, I have to ask...

3. Are you bad at policing Twitter because it's good for business?
I hope not.

4. What's the deal with Trump?
I'm not criticizing the guy. I'm asking this because Twitter has clear guidelines that Trump has violated. And here's where it gets rich: You acknowledged as much last week.

But, you said, because of the "newsworthiness" of Trump's tweets, they'll remain.

Basically, you've created a two-tier system of "newsworthy" people who can say and do whatever they want, and the rest of us have to follow the rules.

I know, The Wall Street Journal last year reported that Facebook also held Trump to a different standard.

But we're talking about Twitter. So, @jack...

5. What are the terms of service for a "newsworthy" account?
We already know "newsworthy" people can make violent threats against the lives of millions of people, as Trump did toward North Korea.

So what else can he do now? Can he dox someone, like when he gave out Sen. Lindsey Graham's cell number on national television?

Can he harass people, like when he attacked TV show hosts and celebrities?

How about hateful posts like those disparaging tweets about Muslims and refugees? Are those OK?

And never mind that the White House told a court Trump blocks people who criticize him on Twitter, potentially denying them their First Amendment right to petition their government.

Considering all the freedom of those accounts, I have to ask...

6. Can I be a "newsworthy" person?
I do work for the world's largest consumer tech site, and I've always wondered what it's like to be an abusive troll. Or do I need to become president of the United States?

7. In light of all this, why are you devoting time to something that seems trivial -- like testing 280-character tweets?
I mean, really. It's silly. And tone deaf.

Aren't there more important things on your to-do list?

Or, as I suspect, do you just think harassment isn't a problem that Twitter needs to solve?

Do you have some questions for @jack, too? Let's hear them.

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