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Is Twitter Finally Dealing With its Harassment Problem?

“FREE SPEECH!” “YOU HAVE TO LISTEN TO MY OPINIONS!” “I HAVE A RIGHT TO CALL YOU NAMES AND SEND YOU OFFENSIVE PHOTOSHOPPED IMAGES!” “ I AM JUST JOKING EVERY TIME I THREATEN TO RAPE AND OR KILL YOU AND YOUR FRIENDS, PETS AND FAMILY!” “FIRST AMENDMENT, FIRST AMENDMENT I SAY!!!!!!”

These are the the cries of the twitter trolls, angry atheists, racists, trans-phobics, anti-feminists and otherwise bigoted groups that congregate on twitter in an attempt to terrorize and silence those they super-duper disagree with. They type endlessly and are relentless in their attempts to target, vilify and intimidate. They simply don’t like you and think they have a right to tell you all about it, all the time. They feel very strongly about their perceived right to tweet at you and inject themselves into your conversations, social media and more. Much more. Constantly. Those who have been targeted by a harassment campaign on the internet know that the harassment can be relentless. It can encompass every aspect of your online experience and Twitter, for years, has notoriously been the most difficult to deal with. There was a time when even muting was impossible and reporting harassment was even harder. Remember those few days where twitter said YOU could block someone but THEY could still follow you AND show up in your mentions? Yeah, that was fun. Thankfully, that misstep did not last, but Twitter has been extremely slow in acknowledging its serious harassment problems. YouTube may have the worst comment sections on the internet but at least there is a button you can click to simply turn off comments there if you wish. On Twitter it’s not so easy. Block a stalker and within 5 mins they can create a sock puppet account to attack again or call in their friends from a forum to pile on.

If you are a target for harassment on Twitter the solution for you has been simply learning how to cope with the nastiest of all possible comments and a regular game of whack-a-troll, or simply deleting your account. 

After years of complaints from high profile targets of hate and a volunteer committee from Women, Action & the Media, that actually gathered data for free for the company, and created an abuse report, with recommendations for solutions, it seems that Twitter is finally starting to realize that its high profile problem with hate and particularly the hate of women, is worth addressing and at least partially solvable.

In February Twitter CEO Dick Costello admitted that “We suck at dealing with abuse,” and that they would take stronger action in dealing with trolls. On Wednesday, Twitter made the following public announcement:

“Today we’re making it possible to share block lists on twitter.com. This new, advanced feature makes blocking multiple accounts easy, fast and community driven.

Mute and block are tools to help you control your Twitter experience. While many users find them useful, we also recognize that some users — those who experience high volumes of unwanted interactions on Twitter — need more sophisticated tools. That’s where this new feature comes in. You can now export and share your block lists with people in your community facing similar issues or import another user’s list into your own account and block multiple accounts all at once, instead of blocking them individually. We also hope these advanced blocking tools will prove useful to the developer community to further improve users’ experience.”

Independent groups have been using Twitter data to create block bots that have been providing this feature for years to help those targeted by twitter mobs- tool_25and it is one of the things that have made the trolls extra angry and they have viciously fought against this technology. Anyone involved with these block bots have of course become instant targets of stalking and abuse and the trolls claim these bots are in direct violation of their right to free speech. It seems finally Twitter has agreed that the mass blocking of undesirables is something that not only is accepted by Twitter rules but it is a tool that it publicly recommends sharing to those who are in need.

One other positive nod I noticed in the fight against sexism online in the last few days on Twitter was the fact that the official twitter account promoted women scientist’s reaction to the extremely sexist remarks made by Tim Hunt.

It appears that Twitter is realizing that it has power to make positive change and is coming to terms with the harassment problem online. I hope that they continue down that path and that together we can build a safer more positive online community for everyone, that truly allows the freedom of information without fear of intimidation.

For anyone who is still confused about their right of free speech, I give you this:

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 9.49.09 AM
Screenshot of First Amendment rights via: Vixy on Tumblr.

Amy Roth

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is the founder and president of the Los Angeles Women's Atheist and Agnostic Group: LAWAAG. She is also the fearless leader of Mad Art Lab and cohost of Mad Art Cast. Support her on Patreon. Follow her on twitter: @SurlyAmy or on Google+.

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3 Comments

  1. June 13, 2015 at 5:03 am —

    As a symbolic move it is very powerful, unfortunately what they have delivered is pretty third rate. A way to export a CSV up to 5000 blocks and manually import them … Presumably mainly on the web interface as this would be hard on mobile.

    Blocktogether.org has done this and more for over a year. TheBlockBot has been around for over 2 years (Disclosure, I wrote it). It doesn’t seem like they’ve invested much time in it so far. Hopefully they’ll provide an API and make it more like blocktogether. Even more hopefully they’ll make bulk blocking a possibility via the API as that will make tools like TheBlockBot a lot easier to create and maintain. Currently a block API call passes one id, being able to pass 5K in bulk would be great :D

    So TL;DR, pleased they are doing something and indirectly endorsing the community blocking tools people have created. But wishing it had been more and started year(s) ago.

  2. June 14, 2015 at 3:48 pm —

    Indians have had the same issue with harassment on Twitter. (For instance, last year because of the whole Stephen Colbert thing. A couple years before that, Joy Harjo didn’t take part in a boycott she had yet to hear of, so some people complained about it.)

    More recently, it’s Facebook. Especially from the neo-Nazis we threw out of Leith.

  3. June 15, 2015 at 3:36 pm —

    There is a Twitter function known as “Twitter Jail” for people who tweet too much (100 within an hour/1000 per day according to Urban Dictionary). What if there were a Twitter Jail of sorts for accounts that *receive* too many tweets in a short time, as in a GamerGate, etc., attack? Perhaps limited to accounts that one doesn’t follow (allowing friends’/accepted accounts’ tweets to still get through). There would need to be allowances for generally high-volume business accounts, news outlets, businesses, and the like.

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