He had made a living out of that sort of thing, and that’s deplorable. But Twitter also made a business out of it. That’s worse.
I suppose I’m meant to feel some immediate justice that the breakout star of the biggest blockbuster in the world got a notorious professional asshole booted off Twitter. Instead the whole thing just illuminated that Twitter has no way to stop abuse for everybody else.
Twitter created a service that relied upon people giving the loudest opinion possible in the smallest number of words, then was shocked to find it had a harassment problem. A study from last year first reported by the Guardian said 88 percent of abuse on social networks came from Twitter.
If anything, the nature of the site rewards the behavior of people like Yiannopoulos, who was able to direct a commuity of swarms of teenagers to fire off racist and sexist opprobrium to political enemies and frame themselves as warriors for free speech.
And Twitter is still playing dumb about it.
When I reached out to the company with questions about the controversy—Is there some sort of formal review board you have for these instances? Is there a longer term strategy for dealing with abuse that isn’t quite so high profile?—it reacted like this was a newish phenomenon.
“We know many people believe we have not done enough to curb this type of behavior on Twitter. We agree. We are continuing to invest heavily in improving our tools and enforcement systems to better allow us to identify and take faster action on abuse as it’s happening and prevent repeat offenders,” wrote a spokesperson.
“We have been in the process of reviewing our hateful conduct policy to prohibit additional types of abusive behavior and allow more types of reporting, with the goal of reducing the burden on the person being targeted. We’ll provide more details on those changes in the coming weeks.”
This company is 10 years old. That’s a year older than the first iPhone. If it hasn’t fixed the problem already, it’s not going to fix it now.
I’ve spent the last few years, in part, covering stories about people whose lives have been made considerably better and worse by Twitter. When I cover the good parts, it’s like somebody won the lottery but got no financial gain out of it. It’s guys who pulled off a real-life a meet-up that was weirder than usual, or a kid a guy who wrote a funny joke for no compensation.
But the bad parts are considerably more routine, and a lot more dangerous. Last month, I investigated atheist and pro-LGBT teenagers in Muslim countries who were being reported to their respective governments’ Twitter accounts for blasphemy because of past tweets. Punishment can mean jail time or death in some of these places. At one point, the Dubai Police Department’s Twitter account, which was verified by Twitter itself, was helping in the witch hunt. A couple of kids were in serious, immediate, physical danger for using Twitter as it was meant to be used.
When asked for comment for that story in June, the same spokesperson said Twitter does “not comment on individual accounts.” All further communications about it went ignored.
This is not even close to unique. One user paid Twitter to promote a tweet last year imploring transgender people to commit suicide. In 2014, a Massachusetts teen committed suicide after retweeting her online abuse. The cases of unimpeded bullying toward the non-famous are immeasurable.
The place is untenable, and there’s clearly no real plan to fix it.
And why would the company have one? For years, Twitter’s stated goal was to gain enough users to compete with Facebook at all costs in order to meet growth benchmarks to appease investors or, as The New York Times put it, its “goal of being able to reach every person on the planet.” Of course, it didn’t, so it added GIF support and a “Moments” section, which is an in-house Twitter editorial section that reads like an airline magazine prop in the background of a Disney movie. Still, nobody new joined last quarter, and the company couldn’t figure out why.
Here’s why: Not enough people are interested in intentional self-harm.
The company has released two plans to make its website less awful for celebrities: It launched an app called Engage, which provides a “safer space,” targeted at famous people. This week, it announced that more high-profile people will be able to receive Verified accounts, which are signed off on by a human at Twitter—the same designation Milo Yiannopoulos used to have.
All of these efforts ignore the guts of the problem: The company is built upon a foundation of people yelling at each other to get more attention.
Twitter is a website to get breaking—often wrong, initially—news faster than anywhere else, and also a place to get mercilessly reamed for being alive. The only reason the news part is still there is because journalists’ bosses require it, and no one has created a technologically competent knockoff.
It is masochism for a regular person to be on Twitter. I have to be on there for my job and it is like jumping into a volcano every morning. Don’t join me.