Harassment on Twitter: One-Line Victims Need More Than One-Day Solutions

by Sydette Harry on February 10th, 2015

The “free speech wing of the free speech party” is getting tough. Dick Costolo thinks Twitter’s abuse is his own personal problem. His message to his company, his commitment to handling it is declaimed with all the resultant swagger and pledge of a technological arms race. Twitter is coming to kick them out and mute them, to work night and day. With NPR and Cracked podcasts talking about abuse on the web, it would seem that a moment has arrived where we are finally taking online abuse seriously.

All it took was a public shaming on This American Life and in the Guardian from the “right” kind of victim. The actual problem is that when most of the victims are the “wrong” kind of people, personal responsibility is the last thing we need. When the crux of online abuse is people deciding other peoples’ expression, declaring it a “personal problem” is less of a solution and more of the same.

The current trend for Twitter and other platforms has hinged on the offline model of “credible threat”. If the abuse registers as specific enough or alarming enough, it is actionable. Twitter’s first big announcement on how it was dealing with harassment was to partner with WAM (Women Action and Media) to introduce a form that would allow them to super-filter abuse complaints. Besides being an extra step to report abuse and penalizing the abused with more work to report the action than it takes to commit it, it also consistently depends on the abuse being recognizable to the person reading the report. What guarantee is there that this new person will view it as harassment? Twitter had a system like this, and the issue wasn’t its structure, but that the people on the other end met it with a shrug.

Adria Richards chronicles the extensive lengths she went to to get any kind of reaction from Twitter during an extended campaign that forced her from her home. In an especially chilling exchange right above tweets calling her racial and ethnic slurs are tips from Twitter (all involving more work) for her to handle the issue, because they won’t.

Why does Lindy West yield a response when Richards’ email detailing much of the same behavior does not? Black women are widely regarded to be the people most likely to receive harassment but as with most harassment discussions, and even in West’s article, they receive one sentence. #yourslipisshowing was a curated hashtag of the beginnings of the more recent coordinated attacks on WOC, where users did the work of finding abusive trolls and notified Twitter. Twitter did nothing. None of the recent media deluge even references the work.

When even your fellow victims pay you the bare minimum of lip service and Twitter won’t intervene when you do the work FOR them, how much can you trust any commitment to safety?

People HATE the fact different kinds of people exist. People have a right to believe that I am a “fat black bitch who should die”, they even have a right to tell their friends. They don’t have a right to expose my life to those who would harm me. The person who just wants to troll for the lulz, is egging on the person who starts visiting your job. The person who just wants a debate uses the language of the person who publishes your address on the Dark Web. By focusing on beating or better identifying abuse, we make the same choice the trolls do: focusing on the abusers’ existence and not the safety of the targets.The question isn’t whether you can outmuscle them, but can you make a platform that generates the engagement you like, with the boundaries I need?

I’ve been called every name in the book. I also happen to be a woman who talks about sex, gender, race and tech. I have also watched platforms and feminists ignore it because I’m not the right victim.

Too often the “solutions” offered focus on creating a nicer internet, but what about when nice is based on the subjectivities of people who do not notice you being abused? What I want is the ability to monitor and control use of platforms to distribute my information and the ability to stop those who make me uncomfortable from contacting me. What I need is the ability to see the standards and ask the hard questions as a power user of a platform that depends on content and connections.

Most importantly, we need the ability to see this foregrounded as part of the business, and not just in responses on internal forums. Costolo’s claim that all the power of Twitter will be behind this didn’t make it into Twitter’s earnings call less than 3 days after he declared it a vital issue.

There were no women there.

He gets a break from his personal problem, we don’t.