by Imani Gandy, Senior Legal Analyst, RH Reality Check
August 12, 2014
NOTICE: THIS WORK MAY BE PROTECTED BY COPYRIGHT
YOU ARE REQUIRED TO READ THE COPYRIGHT NOTICE AT THIS LINK BEFORE YOU READ THE FOLLOWING WORK, THAT IS AVAILABLE SOLELY FOR PRIVATE STUDY, SCHOLARSHIP OR RESEARCH PURSUANT TO 17 U.S.C. SECTION 107 AND 108. IN THE EVENT THAT THE LIBRARY DETERMINES THAT UNLAWFUL COPYING OF THIS WORK HAS OCCURRED, THE LIBRARY HAS THE RIGHT TO BLOCK THE I.P. ADDRESS AT WHICH THE UNLAWFUL COPYING APPEARED TO HAVE OCCURRED. THANK YOU FOR RESPECTING THE RIGHTS OF COPYRIGHT OWNERS.
What began as a fun way to pass the time and form connections with people online has become an exercise in personal fortitude. Why is Twitter ignoring its users cries for help? And why has Twitter left the abuse problem to its users to solve? (Twin Design / Shutterstock.com)
I’ve been a Twitter user for more than five years. In that period, I’ve amassed nearly 25,000 followers, and fired off more than 200,000 tweets. I’ve made friends, I started a new career, I got a new job, I became co-host of an award-winning podcast, and I moved to a new city—all through or because of connections that I made on Twitter.
Increasingly, however, I’ve begun to loathe Twitter. What began as a fun way to pass the time and form connections with people online became an exercise in personal fortitude. I open my Twitter client, preemptively wincing at the litany of racist and sexist slurs that usually await me from anonymous keyboard warriors whose only purpose on Twitter is to disrupt, harass, and abuse.
Not that Twitter —or indeed the Internet as a whole—hasn’t always been fraught with assholes. Look at the comments on most news articles posted on Yahoo! or videos posted on YouTube—they’re an apocalyptic wasteland for the misspelled racist and misogynist ramblings of people so wretched that they should be loaded into a cannon and shot directly into the sun.
But it’s easy to avoid the degenerate online commentariat as a whole—you can just avoid reading the comments.
But on Twitter, the hate-filled invective spewed by the dregs of society awaits you in your notifications. It’s personal and there’s no avoiding it.
In my five years on Twitter, I’ve been called “nigger” so many times that it barely registers as an insult anymore. And when combined with the standard sexist slurs that routinely get lobbed at women on Twitter, let’s just say that my “nigger cunt” cup runneth over.
It has been exhausting.
Assholster: It’s Right in the Name
For the past two years, I have been harassed by someone calling himself Assholster, an anonymous Twitter asshole who, on most days, creates up to ten different Twitter accounts just so he can hurl racist slurs at me: I’m a “nigger,” I look “niggery,” I haven’t earned my “nigger card,” I’m a “pseudonigger,” “fucking niggster,” or “scab nigger.”
If you winced when you read that list of slurs, imagine having them lobbed at you nearly every day for two years.
Checking my Twitter mentions has been like playing a perverse game of Press Your Luck —“No Assholster, no Assholster, no Assholster. STOP!”
Some days I’d get lucky. Most days, however, there he’d be—with his stupid Grumpy cat avatar—taking his anger at the world out on me.
I’ve done all the things you’re supposed to do when dealing with assholes on the Internet—all the victim-blaming advice that Twitter has to offer.
I didn’t respond to Assholster. I’ve blocked at least a thousand of his accounts over the past two years. I’ve reported him using Twitter’s “Report Abuse” form. I briefly considered calling the police, but, really, what would be the point? I’ve seen how police treat stalking victims and victims of online harassment far more severe than mine. What did I expect them to do? “That anonymous Internet troll is saying shitty things about me on the Internet. Seize him!”
Nothing worked and the harassment got worse.
His messages to me have grown increasingly personal. He uses my full name in his tweets—creepy. He mocks my medical condition, claiming that I have a fake brain tumor—idiotic. He says that I’m pretending to be Black—what does that even mean?
And when he’s not playing the victim, ironically complaining that I am the one harassing him, or that I am bigoted against him, or that I’m to blame for getting his multiple hate-speech accounts suspended, he is ranting and raving about kikes and niggers.
I’ve endured this for two years, and so have countless others. He creates hundreds of accounts to tweet his inane ramblings to my friends, online acquaintances, and even my work. He latches on to any tweet of mine and harasses anyone that I interact with.
It got to the point where I began to feel responsible for subjecting my friends to his invective.
But why should I feel responsible? It’s not my responsibility; it’s Twitter’s.
Twitter, Can You Hear Me?
After two years of blocking and reporting Assholster, I decided on a more direct approach. I began taking screenshots of the harassment and tweeting them to both Dick Costolo, the CEO of Twitter, and to Twitter Support. I also started hash-tagging my tweets “#Assholster.”
I knew that by doing this, the harassment would likely escalate—and it did—but I thought if I could make Mr. Costolo or anyone who works at Twitter Support or Safety hear me—if I could make them see exactly what it is that I endure on a daily basis—then maybe Twitter would do something.
So, every time Assholster tweeted me, I would tweet some variation of the following.
• “Assholster Account Number 1 for the day”
• “Assholster Account Number 2 for the day”
• “Assholster Account Number 3 for the day”
• “Assholster Account Number 4 for the day”
• “Assholster Account Number 5 for the day”
And I would include a screenshot.
After several days of this, Costolo finally responded: “we are on this in a couple different ways. I’d prefer to leave it at that here. Thanks very much.”
Well that’s nice, Mr. Costolo, but I’d prefer to not have this asshole calling me “nigger” day in and day out. And I’d also prefer a little transparency when it comes to whatever it is you folks at Twitter are doing about serial harassers.
Reporting Abuse: Why Bother?
Last summer, it seemed as if Twitter might finally be shamed into action. In the wake of a barrage of rape and death threats received by Caroline Criado Perez—a British feminist who campaigned to have Jane Austen appear on a Bank of England note—Twitter introduced a “report abuse” button that allows users to flag abusive tweets directly from Twitter.
It changed everything! And by “everything,” I mean “nothing.”
The only thing the “report abuse” button does is to remove one step from Twitter’s standard process for reporting abuse. Before the “report abuse” button, you’d have to do an Internet search for Twitter’s “Report Abusive User” form in order to report an abusive tweet. The “report abuse” button immediately directs you to the form so you don’t have to Google it.
Yes, it’s as pointless as it sounds because as anyone who has bothered to report an abusive tweet knows, the “Report Abusive User” form is about as effective as your average YouTube commenter at a spelling bee.
First, Twitter often takes days, weeks, or even months to respond to a report of abuse. Second, reporting an individual user for harassment is useless in cases where the abusive user’s account has already been suspended—and a new account created—by the time you complete the reporting process. In such cases, Twitter just shrugs its shoulders: Sorry. That account has been suspended. Nothing we can do.
And even though Twitter expressly prohibits “Serial Accounts,” i.e., creating “multiple accounts for disruptive or abusive purposes,” Twitter has no way of preventing the Assholsters of the world from doing so.
In fact, many serial harassers use scripts to create multiple new accounts automatically, which is why most of Assholster’s Twitter handles are simply a string of letters: @gndmxkll or @gnndcdm.
Twitter doesn’t even bother to make sure that its users are following its own rules.
“Fucking Die Feminist Moron”
I’m not the only woman who is fed up with Twitter’s lax approach to abuse. One Twitter user, Kristin Puhl, reported a threat she received to Twitter: “fucking die feminist moron i’m coming after u and raping u.” According to Puhl, it took Twitter two days to respond to her report, and when they did, they informed Puhl that the tweet did not violate Twitter’s rules.
Got that? It is not a violation of Twitter’s rules to threaten to rape another Twitter user.
As Puhl aptly put it, “I am so angry @Twitter. If you don’t take violent threats seriously, why even have a section for reporting them?”
I asked Shanley Kane, founder and CEO of Model View Culture and critic of the tech industry’s unbearable whiteness of being, about the harassment she endures on Twitter. “There’s the constant background, opportunistic, low-grade harassment—responses to my tweets that are deliberately using hate speech, sexist slurs and words, or juvenile trolling,” she wrote in an email.
Many women on Twitter are familiar with this type of harassment. It is so commonplace that many of us have grown accustomed to it. It has become the price that we pay for simply daring to have an opinion and express it on Twitter.
“Another type is I have somewhere between two and four (It’s hard to determine because they often utilize multiple accounts) people who have been consistently stalking and harassing me for more than 9 months, often with daily harassing contact,” Kane added.
This is the sort of serial harassment and stalking that seems to be reserved for prominent women on Twitter, feminists, or women who have a large following. (I recently asked my followers whether any had experienced this sort of serial harassment. “I’m not that big-time,” one Twitter user replied to me.)
Kane has been very vocal about Twitter’s failure to address harassment. On July 29, she spearheaded an effort to encourage Twitter users to use a tweet chat sponsored by CNBC—#AskCostolo—as a way to air their grievances about Twitter’s ineffective abuse policy.
Thirty-two percent of the comments and questions tweeted on the #AskCostolo hashtag were related to safety, privacy and abuse, according to a social analytics firm. And many of the tweets were variations on the same theme:
Why aren’t rape threats a violation of Twitter’s terms of service?
Why can’t Twitter prevent people from creating serial accounts to harass Twitter users?
Why does Twitter use the diversity of its user base as a selling point for advertisers while ignoring the harassment that its diverse users suffer?
Why is it that Black people comprise more than a quarter of Twitter’s user base, but Twitter won’t do anything about the rampant racism those users face? (Notably, Twitter just hired a “multicultural strategist” to head up plans to target Black, Hispanic, and Asian users for advertising—you know—the same users that it ignores when it comes to dealing with racism on Twitter.)
The questions went on and on for hours.
But did Costolo address any of those concerns during his interview with CNBC? Nope. Has anyone at Twitter responded to the thousands of tweets from its users asking what Twitter is doing to fix the harassment and abuse problem? Of course not.
The question remains, why not?
“There is no inherent technical reason why Twitter can’t better address abuse and harassment on its platform,” said Shanley Kane. “Twitter employs literally thousands of engineers at the top of the field, and has access to the best talent, research, and resources the world has to offer, in addition to the capital to obtain it,” she added.
Third-Party Developers Step Up
While Twitter with its thousands of engineers has been unable or unwilling to develop solutions to the rampant racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-semitic, and transphobic harassment that its users suffer on a daily basis—solutions like those suggested by iOS developer Danilo Campos in a recent blog post entitled “The Least Twitter Could Do”—Jacob Hoffman-Andrews, a senior staff technologist at Electronic Frontier Foundation, recently stepped up.
Last Monday, Hoffman-Andrews unveiled Block Together, a new app “intended to help cope with harassers and abusers on Twitter.” To say that the app has changed my Twitter life is to understate its significance to me.
I am now able to control my Twitter experience in ways that before I could not. Block Together permits me to share my list of blocked users (over 5,000 users) with other Twitter users (and vice versa) so that I can avoid those users that people whom I trust have already deemed unworthy of my time.
More importantly, however, the app permits me to automatically block accounts less than seven days old that tweet at me.
I signed up for the app immediately, and for the past six days, I have had a reprieve from the constant barrage of racist and misogynist insults and slurs that had become a part of my daily Twitter experience.
Block Together is currently the only app that permits users to control their own content. But another app is in the works: San Francisco-based developer Cori Johnson is working on Flaminga, an app that promises even more robust solutions to Twitter abuse than those currently offered by Block Together.
So there you have it: Two developers are attacking Twitter’s abuse problem while Twitter twiddles its thumbs.
Still, why is Twitter ignoring its users cries for help? Why has Twitter left the problem to its users to solve?
White Guys Doing It by Themselves
After a public chiding from Color of Change and Rainbow Push Coalition, Twitter recently released statistics on its diversity. The results are unsurprising: Like its peer companies, Facebook and Google, the social media giant is a giant failure when it comes to diversity.
According to the numbers released last month, 90 percent of employees who work in tech roles are male; 92 percent of tech employees are white or Asian; and 96 percent of leadership roles are held by white or Asian people. In addition, 90 percent of employees in tech are men, and 79 percent of the leadership roles are held by men. Blacks and Hispanics comprise a measly 1 and 3 percent of Twitter’s United States tech workforce, respectively.
To put it bluntly, Twitter is run primarily by white guys who are presumably straight. And because, for the most part, straight white guys don’t endure the same level of online harassment that women do, they simply cannot understand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of relentless abuse. After all, to paraphrase Louis C.K., you can’t even hurt a white man’s feelings.
For women, the harassment on Twitter is often unbearable, and the facile response of those who are not subjected to regular harassment—and, indeed, the response of Twitter itself—is infuriating: “Don’t feed the trolls.” “Just block them.”
But “just block them” is not a solution for those of us who are relentlessly assailed by Twitter users who have nothing better to do than to slap us in the face with their hate-filled filth, and who, upon account suspension, create new accounts in order to continue their campaign of harassment.
Often, the best solution is to reduce Twitter activity or to quit the platform entirely. I know many women who have already done that. But that solution benefits neither the victims of harassment nor Twitter. If, as Twitter claims, its goal is to reach every person on the planet, then Twitter higher-ups are going to need to acknowledge that most of the people on the planet aren’t straight white dudes, and they’re going to need to come up with a way curb the abuse.
Until that time, developers of apps like Block Together are stepping up to fill the void—a void that, thus far, Twitter refuses to fill itself.
To schedule an interview with Imani Gandy contact director of communications Rachel Perrone at firstname.lastname@example.org.