On Tuesday, Twitter addressed criticisms of how it handles abusive behavior by announcing changes to its blocking and reporting tools.
Rolling out to all users over the coming weeks, the features were designed to make reporting and discouragement of online harassment easier for people. For Twitter, the updates seem carefully orchestrated to show that, no matter how it seems, the company really does care about protecting the folks who use its network.
Let’s see just how much it cares.
How To Report Abusive Tweeting
Threatening behavior violates Twitter’s terms of service. Yet the company had previously done little to restructure its poorly crafted abuse-reporting architecture.
For instance, Twitter has long barred anyone witnessing abusive behavior from reporting infractions, instead requiring that only the targets of abuse could flag incidents. From the old version of a page in the company’s Help Center (courtesy of Google Cache):
Who can report abusive behavior on Twitter?
In order to investigate reports of abusive behaviors, violent threats or a breach of privacy, we need to be in contact with the actual person affected or their authorized representative. We are unable to respond to requests from uninvolved parties […] If you are not an authorized representative but you are in contact with the individual, encourage the individual to file a report through our forms.
[emphasis added by ReadWrite]
The process of reporting abuse itself practically discouraged people from speaking up, as victims had to plod through clunky multi-question forms.
Now, Twitter has opened up its reporting tool so anyone can flag offending behavior. It also shortened the steps required and made it “mobile-friendly,” making it easier to file complaints from smartphones.
The approach certainly sounds much more convenient. Of course, if anyone can report bad behavior anywhere they see it—or claim to see it—there will undoubtedly be an uptick in random or spurious complaints. Twitter may need to ramp up resources to deal with that, as otherwise the reporting tool could itself become a harassment weapon aimed at unsuspecting users.
Elsewhere, Twitter also revamped its online settings to include a new “blocked accounts” area (available at Twitter.com). Here, you can see and edit your list of blocked users, as well as bar them from viewing your profile.
While not exactly robust, the changes do look like a decent start. It’s long overdue.
Abuse On Twitter Is No Laughing Matter
The network has become a home to online mob mentalities. Negative tweets quickly and easily escalate into streams of hate speech and threats within moments.
A year ago, journalist and feminist advocate Caroline Criado-Perez received a torrential spate of Twitter abuse for proposing that British currency feature a woman’s face. Criado-Perez estimated that she received one rape threat per minute. Twitter rolled out its initial reporting tools shortly after, but the British journalist called them inadequate for the large volume of threats she and others received. (She ultimately quit Twitter.)
Now Twitter’s reaction to another high-profile online harassment case has spawned the latest set of changes. In August, Zelda Williams suffered the wrath of Twitter following the death of her father, comedian Robin Williams. The flood of personal and vicious attacks essentially blamed her for the tragedy, forcing the younger Williams to take a hiatus from the network.
After that, Twitter said it would “evaluate its policies,” and today’s announcements deliver on that promise. But their timing once again makes the company seem like a reactive, reluctant protector of its users’ safety.
Twitter seems to know that, so it promises to make more proactive improvements and soon. In fact, the company acknowledges that its work to improve features—and perhaps its image—has only just begun.
“We are nowhere near being done making changes in this area,” the company stated in its blog post. Twitter says it will launch “new enforcement procedures for abusive accounts” at some point later. Del Harvey, Twitter’s vice president of trust and safety, said in a statement that “we’re also working to take advantage of more behavioral signals—including reports from bystanders—and using those signals to prioritize reports and speed up our review process.” The Verge reports that bulk blocking—that is, blocking of multiple accounts at once—could be on the menu too.
Dealing with online harassment can be tricky, particularly on a network that lets anyone create new or multiple accounts—even if their bad behavior gets a previous one shut down. In that sense, Twitter essentially has a never-ending game of whack-a-mole on its hands. But at the very least, the company finally seems ready to wield a proper mallet.
Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Lead photo by Anthony Quintano; all other images courtesy of Twitter