Harassment is breaking Twitter’s free speech experiment

Harassment is breaking Twitter’s free speech experiment


You guys are not going to believe what Trump just tweeted. He– Uh oh. Sorry. Try it again. You guys are not going to believe what Trump— Jesus. What’s wrong? Um. Nothing. One more time. You guys are not going to— You know what? Never mind. Twitter’s harassment problem is out of control and it’s changing the way we talk about free speech on the internet. Before we talk about what Twitter is, we should talk about what Twitter was supposed
to be. In the preamble to its original rules, Twitter
stated: except in limited circumstances.” In other words, Twitter was supposed to be a neutral platform where you could say anything to anyone with very few rules. Twitter, and Blogger before it, were very
interested in kind of committing to that principle of free
speech. If you get the barriers out of the way, speech
will happen, rich discussion will happen, the best ideas
will bubble forth. That’s Tarleton Gillespie, who’s been studying
speech on the internet since Napster was around. What’s Napster? Am I old? Twitter prided itself on being an anti-censorship
platform, especially after it played a role in the Arab
Spring uprisings in 2011. That was a very compelling idea for what Twitter
could be, what citizen journalism could be. For a while, Twitter talked about themselves
as the free speech wing of the free speech party. Twitter’s commitment to free speech was baked into its design and structure. You can tweet anonymously, meaning you won’t be punished for your opinions. You can tweet at whoever you want, meaning you don’t need permission to talk
to politicians and celebrities. And maybe most importantly, beyond copyright infringement and impersonation, Twitter was not interested in monitoring what
you tweeted. That was a very powerful commitment
for them and made them design their tool in really
compelling ways. Sorry, one second. Jesus, someone tweeted that? No, it’s a text from my mom. Twitter began as a radical experiment in free
speech. But over time that experiment started to fall
apart because the same features that made Twitter so attractive to citizen journalists and political
dissidents also made it a perfect environment for trolls: neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and misogynists. These users realized they could use Twitter’s
anonymity and structure to target and harass people
they didn’t agree with. And before long, Twitter had a massive PR problem on their
hands. Every few weeks, another story about Twitter being overrun by abuse — high-profile users like journalists, celebrities,
and authors leaving the platform because of Twitter’s
inability to deal with harassment. One of those users was Lindy West. I am a contributing opinion writer for the
New York Times. I wrote a book called Shrill that came out
in 2016. I’m just a general sort of internet feminist. West loved Twitter at first. But over time, her work made her the target of brutal harassment
campaigns. Very quickly, my experience on Twitter became one of endless constant harassment. I’ll just read them. “No need for you to worry about rape, uggo.” “That big bitch is bitter that no one wants
to rape her.” “What a fucking cunt.” “Kill yourself you dumb bitch.” Is that enough? Oh, there’s so many more. West recognized early on that that harassment wasn’t just mean. It had a purpose. They want you removed from the national conversation and removed from whatever little shred of
power you’ve managed to achieve. And Twitter realized it too. In 2015, former CEO Dick Costolo told employees, Twitter’s radical free speech experiment had
failed. If you have a commitment to free speech and some of your users are being shouted down, threatened, and driven off the platform, something’s happening to their speech. The idea that you can be neutral without any
moderation is an illusion, and it’s a very lazy, self-serving
illusion. Sorry, sorry. Twitter again? So this is where things start to get really
dicey, because Twitter has to answer this basic but messy question: Is Twitter really a neutral service provider, like Verizon or Comcast, offering a semi-public
platform without caring about what happens on it? Or had Twitter become something else, a community moderator that cares about the content and behavior of its users? So far Twitter’s answer has been: Eeeeeh. On one hand, the company is clearly moving
away from its radical free speech roots. Twitter has slowly introduced tougher and tougher rules for dealing with harassment, prohibiting things like violent threats and incitements to harass. And in October, Twitter announced new rules to deal with violent groups and hateful images. Those are positive developments for victims
of abuse, but enforcing those rules is making Twitter
answer tougher and tougher questions about users’
content. Is this harassment? What about this? What about now? Is this harassment? What about now? Is this an example of hate speech? What about this? Is this a violent threat? How about now? What about now? Is this a hate image? What about this? How about now? Is this a dangerous group? What about this? There’s no neutral way to answer these questions. The amount of accounts they’re looking at, the kind of range they’re looking at, how they judge what someone’s doing, what their intent is, whether they’re reading the situation correctly, those are immensely
difficult things to do. Twitter won’t say how it’s going to make these
calls. It’s just asking us to trust them. And West worries those decisions might end up making the problem worse. The waters really get muddied. I know black activists whose accounts have been shut down for criticizing white
people because it’s “racist.” At the same time, Twitter still wants to be
treated like a neutral speech platform. In July, a month before the white supremacist
rally in Charlottesville, Twitter rolled out a “see every side” ad campaign, celebrating its “everything’s cool” approach
to politics. Yep, that’s a frat bro, Chadwick I’m assuming, tweeting about climate change being fake. Sweet Chadwick. When current Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was asked what kind of tool Twitter is, Dorsey responded To what? What does that mean? Closer to neo-Nazis? Closer to the targets of our harassment? Twitter is stuck between these competing visions of its responsibility to its users. Which is how we end up with a website that
bans white supremacist content but verifies actual white supremacists. I don’t envy Twitter. You know, it’s a huge problem. It’s very, very complicated. I don’t know how to fix it. Did you tweet this at me? Wrap it up! Fine, look. Any platform with rules has to have a reason for those rules, a goal those rules are trying to advance. Twitter doesn’t right now. But by starting to crack down on abuse, Twitter is kind of opening Pandora’s box, opening itself up to more and more responsibility for what happens on its platform. If you take the other view of free speech
that says, “You have to make a venue where speech works,” that requires having an aspiration. It’s not just, “Be more open and connected.” It’s not just, “Talk to anyone you want to.” It’s actually, “We’re trying to build a conversation
here, and if you don’t look like you’re building
a conversation then you don’t belong here.” That’s a very hard kind of mental shift. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if we’re giving that much power to a private
company, we better hope it knows what it’s doing.

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