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How Twitter Turned Toxic


At Fast Company, Austin Carr and Harry McCracken have written a lengthy piece investigating the development of Twitter into a locus of hate speech and harassment, and the company’s inadequate efforts to combat this. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

By 2012, spam was mutating into destructive trolling and hate speech. The few engineers in Harvey’s group had built some internal tools to enable her team to more quickly remove illegal content such as child pornography, but they weren’t prepared for the proliferation of harassment on Twitter. “Every time you build a wall, someone is going to build a higher ladder, and there are always more people outside trying to fuck you over than there are inside trying to stop them,” says a former platform engineer. That year, Australian TV personality Charlotte Dawson was subjected to a rash of vicious tweets–e.g., “go hang yourself”–after she spoke out against online abuse. Dawson attempted suicide and was hospitalized. The following summer, in the U.K., after activist Caroline Criado-Perez campaigned to get a woman’s image featured on the 10-pound note, her Twitter feed was deluged with trolls sending her 50 rape threats per hour.

The company responded by creating a dedicated button for reporting abuse within tweets, yet trolls only grew stronger on the platform. Internally, Costolo complained that the “abuse economics” were “backward.” It took just seconds to create an account to harass someone, but reporting that abuse required filling out a time-consuming form. Harvey’s team, earnest about reviewing the context of each reported tweet but lacking a large enough support staff, moved slowly. Multiple sources say it wasn’t uncommon for her group to take months to respond to backlogged abuse tickets. Because they lacked the necessary language support, team members had to rely on Google Translate for answering many non-English complaints. User support agents, who manually evaluated flagged tweets, were so overwhelmed by tickets that if banned users appealed a suspension, they would sometimes simply release the offenders back onto the platform. “They were drowning,” says a source who worked closely with Harvey. “To this day, it’s shocking to me how bad Twitter was at safety.”

Image: Twitter headquarters in San Francisco. Via NBC News.