Opinion: Twitter needs to deal with its abuse problem if it wants to survive

David Gilbert looks at how trolling could destroy Twitter's reputation

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General view of the Twitter application in use on an iPad | Image: Andrew Matthews / PA Archive/Press Association Images

Twitter is among the most hyped technology companies of the last decade. Loved by the media and lauded by the industry, the social media company is the darling of Silicon Valley — or at least it was.

Today Twitter is struggling. Its growth has faltered. It has been unable to monetise its product in the same way Facebook has done so successfully and there is a revolving door of executives coming into and quickly leaving the company.

And while users might want an 'edit tweet' feature or the ability to extend the 140 character limit, these issues are entirely irrelevant in comparison to its biggest problem — Twitter’s failure to adequately deal with the abuse and trolling on its platform, something which, if CEO Jack Dorsey doesn’t get a grip on quickly, could derail the company completely.

Last week we saw another high profile user — Ghostbusters actor Leslie Jones — driven off Twitter because of horrific racial and misogynistic abuse. Twitter finally responded by banning another well-known user for inciting the abuse, but this is very much the tip of the iceberg.

Twitter and Dorsey know there is a problem. In a statement last week the company admitted as much: “We know many people believe we have not done enough to curb this type of behaviour on Twitter. We agree. We have been in the process of reviewing our hateful conduct policy to prohibit additional types of abusive behaviour and allow more types of reporting, with the goal of reducing the burden on the person being targeted.”

In February the company established a Safety Council to combat these very issues with a mandate of “making people feel safe expressing their themselves on Twitter.” Five months later however and there seems to be little in the way of improvement.

The problem for Dorsey is that not only is he trying to fight the growing problem of abuse on the platform, he is also trying to appease shareholders who point to a lack of user growth. The service saw user numbers increase just 3 percent year-on-year in the first quarter of 2016 and its monthly active user number of 310 million pales in comparison to the 1.65 billion who use Facebook every month.

Facebook has of course got its own challenges with abuse, but it appears to be winning the battle. Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety recently said that while her team failed to meet the company’s strict zero tolerance rule for rape threats — it had noticed a huge improvement in terms of how the policy against rape threats was enforced.

Instagram — which is owned by Facebook — has also been in the news in relation to abuse on its platform, when it decided to actively intervene in the case of pop star Taylor Swift, who had posted a message in response to Kim Kardashian releasing videos of a phone called between Swift and Kanye West, which the singer had claimed never happened.

The result was a torrent of abuse from hardcore trolls, many of whom used the snake emoji inspired by an earlier tweet from Kardashian. Instagram decided to take action and actively removed any abusive comments, with any comment using the snake emoji automatically being removed within seconds of it being posted.

The problem for Twitter is that the people who routinely get abuse are not pop stars or Hollywood actors with millions of followers and the influence to command such personal interventions. Threats and abuse are directed at everyone, and without the tools to stop them, trolls will simply continue to enjoy a freedom on Twitter they don’t enjoy anywhere else.

The thing is, if Twitter really wanted to do something to at least limit the ability of these vile trolls to impact those they are targeting, they could.

Here are three ways Twitter could make things a lot better without a huge amount of effort:

  • Mute Hashtags/Phrases: If you use Twitter’s Tweetdeck client you already have this ability but you can’t mute hashtags or phrases on Twitter website or its mobile apps — which is crazy considering Twitter owns Tweetdeck. By rolling this out to all its apps, Twitter could give people a quick and easy way to get rid of a lot of the horrible stuff people say on Twitter.
  • Block Lists: At the moment, while you can create a block list and share it with someone else, it’s not a very straightforward process and the bast majority of users simply don’t know it is possible. Once you have created a list of users you have blocked due to abusive content, Twitter should allow you to share that block list with anyone just as it allows you to share Lists today. It also needs to make block lists sharable across its native apps and clients like Tweetdeck, something it does offer at the moment.
  • Better Filtering: The vast majority of trolls on Twitter have been reported and block multiple times, but because Twitter doesn’t require any proof of identity when signing up, they can simply create duplicate accounts instantly. If Twitter allows users to block accounts which were less than two weeks old, had under 100 tweets and hadn’t changed their profile picture from the Twitter egg, it could quickly and easily eradicate 90 percent of the abuse on the platform today.

The minute Milo Yiannopoloous was banned permanently from Twitter on Tuesday there was an outcry from his supporters — and from Yiannopolous himself — claiming that Twitter was limiting his right to free speech and that this was the beginning of the end for Twitter.

Setting aside the fact that Twitter is a private company and doesn’t have to allow anyone onto its platform, Yiannopolous agreed to the terms and conditions which Twitter has established when he signed up, and by helping to incite hatred and abuse towards ghostbuster actor Leslie Jones, he violated those rules and so had to be removed.

None of the changes suggested above would stop any of the pathetic and cowardly trolls who seem to love the platform so much, from using Twitter, but it would make the lives of all other users a whole lot easier.