Questions as WAM! Announces Twitter Collaboration to Address Online Harassment

by Shanley Kane on November 6th, 2014

Today, Women, Action & the Media (WAM!) announced an “unprecedented collaboration” with Twitter to address online harassment. WAM!’s pilot program asks Twitter users experiencing gendered harassment to submit their experiences to the organization through a web form: “WAM! will escalate validated reports to Twitter and track Twitter’s responses to different kinds of gendered harassment.”

WAM! will then work with Twitter to incorporate learnings from the program into its abuse handling.

While it’s exciting to see new, concrete programs to combat online harassment — particularly ones that seek to address multiple aspects and intersections of online harassment — the news raises a few questions. Including: what is the true extent of Twitter’s engagement with the program? The online blog post and press release are somewhat vague, and don’t include a quote from Twitter, which would at least indicate vocal and explicit support. The community has been asking for clear commitment from Twitter to prioritize online abuse handling, and this doesn’t feel like clear commitment.

Further, it’s not clear the conditions under which reports will be escalated, what the privacy and security implications of sharing this data with a third party are, and how specifically the data will be analyzed and shared with Twitter. While a through treatment of these issues might be too extensive for a pilot, any program which seeks to address online harassment *must* address these topics, especially since participants are by definition in danger, often facing serious threats to their lives and emotional and physical wellbeing.

It is also important to recognize that Twitter is a multi-billion dollar company with a massive engineering team, and Twitter’s response to online abuse should embody its position and resources. Yet as WAM!’s press release notes, the reporting form was “created pro­ bono by an experienced developer concerned about increasing harassment of women online.” Considering Twitter’s abysmal diversity data, we have to ask: why isn’t Twitter isn’t hiring full-time talent from marginalized and underrepresented communities to address these issues, instead of putting up a Wufoo form someone created for free?

WAM!’s work with Twitter is an important step in this critical issue, which has been brought into sharper relief by the ongoing online terrorism perpetrated by GamerGate. But issues of corporate commitment, visible support, the ethics of data collection, and free labor/hiring must be an integral part of how we address online harassment.