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Twitter says it's making progress battling abusive behavior

The social network says users have encountered significantly less harassment in the past six months.

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Hateful behavior has been a black mark on social media for years. Twitter says it's making progress pushing back.

Peter Strain

Better late than never.

After years of struggling to manage abusive tweets, Twitter says it's made some short-term progress tackling the problem.

The social network said Thursday it's been clamping down on 10 times as many abusive tweeters as it did a year ago, though it declined to say how many accounts it's disciplined. The efforts do appear to be making the community more hospitable: Twitter said it's seeing fewer repeat offenders and fewer users tapping features to shut off abusive tweeters, such as blocking their accounts.

These updates are part of Twitter's ongoing attempts to curb abusive behavior and convince people it's succeeding in that task. Since January, it's given its 328 million monthly active users more options to combat harassment, either by muting abusive tweeters or reporting them to Twitter

This push began late last year after Jack Dorsey, Twitter's CEO, solicited suggestions from its users for improving the site. Some people asked for relatively benign features, like the ability to edit a tweet. But Dorsey was also barraged with requests to cut down on harassment, after years of the problem running rampant on the service. Last year was when some particularly ugly episodes happened, including a hate mob attacking Leslie Jones, a star of last summer's "Ghostbusters" movie.

More from iHate.

Click to see CNET's series about abuse on the web.

Aaron Robinson/CNET

Twitter's renewed focus on harassment is a "completely different mindset" from several years ago, said Danielle Citron, a University of Maryland law professor who studies hate on the internet. Back then, unchecked mobs led to hate campaigns, such as in the 2014 attacks against video game critics that came to be known as #GamerGate. Now Citron is part of Twitter's Trust and Safety Council, a group of more than 60 organizations and experts working to prevent abuse and hateful rhetoric

Last month, the group convened for a two-day summit at Twitter's San Francisco headquarters, where it went through examples of what tweets are considered intimidating, abusive and just flat-out hate speech. The participants discussed what to do about them while also protecting users' freedom of expression, said Citron, who has worked with Twitter in various capacities over the years.

"We are having some tough and meaningful discussions, but it's also showing that Twitter is making some progress and responding much faster to abuse," she said. "I find it hopeful."

Part of Twitter's seeming improvements come from how it's approaching troublesome users. For example, the company has begun using a feature that limits an account, meaning those users can send tweets only to their followers and not anyone else on Twitter, typically for 12 hours. Twitter said the limits on those accounts led to 25 percent fewer reports of abuse. Additionally, it said, about 65 percent of those limited accounts do not become repeat offenders.

Here's a tweet of what getting a limited-account warning looks like:

Another problem Twitter struggles with: Hate mobs attacking other users they otherwise aren't connected with. Initially, the only way to stop this behavior was to report these users to Twitter or blocking their accounts. Twitter has since begun offering new features to mute people with new accounts or those who follow behaviors of accounts designed to torment others. 

These efforts appear to be working. Twitter said the number of strangers who block other people's accounts has dropped 40 percent in the last four months.

"While there is still much work to be done, people are experiencing significantly less abuse on Twitter today than they were six months ago," Ed Ho, Twitter's vice president of engineering, wrote in a blog post.

Intolerance on the Internet: Online abuse is as old as the internet and it's only getting worse. It exacts a very real toll.  

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