If anyone hasn’t been following the story lately, Jane Austen recently was announced as going to go onto the 10 pound note in the UK. What does this have to do with Twitter? Apparently a lot of people were mad at the woman who petitioned it, Caroline Criado-Perez and flooded Twitter to send her rape threats. Seems like a normal day in the life for a feminist with a social media presence but due to the news profile that getting a woman on money got, the wave of threats and general shitbaggery was quite a lot more voluminous.
So much in fact that Criado-Perez turned around and petitioned Twitter to implement a Report Abuse feature. Now, several days later, Twitter has already responded that they will be implementing it. Seems like a good thing right? Well the problem is that many people over the weekend raised their legitimate concerns with why adding a Report Abuse feature to Twitter won’t really make the problem of threats or abuse go away, and might even hurt those it is supposed to protect.
The problem is that Twitter, for being a free service (Caitlin Moran, shut the fuck up), doesn’t do much to aid those who use the service when it comes to potential violations of not only their Terms of Service but actual statues regarding internet harassment. Their website does have ways to report abuse right now, but nothing terribly convenient and many people, including even high-profile Twitter feminists like Feminist Frequency are given boilerplate answers that rape threats do not constitute “abuse.” It seems like Twitter has a support staff for these things but largely has a laissez-faire “everything is covered by free speech, we don’t step into disputes” attitude, even when someone is legitimately the subject of a one-sided hate campaign.
How do I know this? Well, like so many other people on Twitter who were protesting the efficacy of this feature, I was a victim of Twitter saying one thing and doing nothing. Over the course of four years, I had a stalker who was dedicated in making most of my waking hours a torturous hell. Once he found out that I had a Twitter account, a prolonged daily attack of hundreds of Twitter accounts tweeting at me was my life for 2 years. He would Tweet at me innocuous but hurtful things about my appearance, post pictures of me but it soon escalated on most days up to and including threats on my life, that he was going to rape me, and posted my phone number, address (or enough to scare me once I got the cops involved.) He also would like to threaten me with literal genital mutilation, posting pictures and threats about what he was going to do. He’d tweet sexually harassing things as well. There wasn’t anything vile that he didn’t stoop to, including harassing people through me – my friends, especially other women. Twitter on multiple occasions either didn’t respond to me trying to keep up with the dozens of new accounts per day, or gave me the same answer – that it doesn’t violate their policies. It made me think, “What does violate?” Apparently spamming does.
People have used the “Report Spam” button to either toss a bad person in the trash but also to get rid of critical Twitter accounts if they have enough support. Anti-Racism Dog has repeatedly gotten the Report Spam treatment despite being a Twitter account that does nothing but tweet at racists on Twitter with barking noises. This is definitely not giving me a good feeling that implementing a Report Abuse feature is going to be used the same way.
No one is going to be protected when Twitter puts this in on all their various apps or website because Twitter simply doesn’t have the moderation, concern or staff to make sure that anything that is reported is vetted for content. It shows that even when the content passes muster for 90 percent of humanity as abusive, that it doesn’t violate their rules. At best, what a Report Abuse button is going to do is nothing. At worst, abusers and other oppressive people who are upset that someone is justifiably mad at them (very often marginalized populations on Twitter – transfolk, WoC) are going to use it to further silence those people who already can’t fight back. Where are the celeb supporters for them? Petitions? Were they hiding around a corner somewhere while the rest of us were dealing with this?
Stuff like this needs to come with not just an assurance of being created but actually enacted in a way that requires way more human interaction, time and concern for their users than Twitter has at the moment. Twitter has a responsibility, even as a free service, to do more to protect people from whatever the Internet decides to throw up on them in 140 characters or less. It is one of the juggernauts of the social media world and like Facebook, has really done very little to do this. It makes me exceptionally bitter that people who had been disenfranchised by Twitter and abused repeatedly were not given any audience in this discussion between one high-profile white feminist and Twitter as a corporate entity – well, except on their Twitter accounts of course. It is because Twitter is where all the actual good discussion happens.
Imagine if all that good discussion starts getting snuffed out because detractors, abusers, and misogynists start abusing the Report Abuse button and Twitter continues the hands-off policy. It will be a sad day for the service indeed but more for the fact that Twitter has routinely been one of the few places online, harassment be damned, to actually interact with people in a way that isn’t moderated by oppressive policies. But in doing so, Twitter has also created a perfect place for abuse to go unabated, and this just seems like more of the same.