The decision-makers were not people who got abuse

BuzzFeed has a long piece about how thoroughly for what a long time Twitter has failed to do anything about Twitter harassment.

[H]arassment on Twitter is rampant — so much so that it has become a primary destination for trolls and hate groups. So much so that its CEO declared, “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years.” So much so that numeroushigh-profileusershavequittheservice, citing it as an unsafe space. Today, Twitter is a well-known hunting ground for women and people of color, who are targeted by neo-Nazis, racists, misogynists, and trolls, often just for showing up. Just this summer, actor Leslie Jones was driven off Twitter after a barrage of racist comments and death threats, only to return after a personal reassurance from Dorsey himself. Last week, Normani Kordei of the pop group Fifth Harmony also stepped away from the service after suffering years of “horrific and racially charged” tweets. Despite its integral role in popular culture and in social justice initiatives from the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter, Twitter is as infamous today for being as toxic as it is famous for being revolutionary. And unless you’re a celebrity — or, as it turns out, the president of the United States of America — good luck getting help.

Indeed. They’ll look at the most obvious, sustained, targeted abuse and just say nope, we don’t care.

According to 10 high-level former employees, the social network’s long history with abuse has been fraught with inaction and organizational disarray. Taken together, these interviews tell the story of a company that’s been ill-equipped to handle harassment since its beginnings. Fenced in by an abiding commitment to free speech above all else and a unique product that makes moderation difficult and trolling almost effortless, Twitter has, over a chaotic first decade marked by shifting business priorities and institutional confusion, allowed abuse and harassment to continue to grow as a chronic problem and perpetual secondary internal priority. On Twitter, abuse is not just a bug, but — to use the Silicon Valley term of art — a fundamental feature.

The “abiding commitment to free speech” thing is so infuriating – because free speech isn’t about enabling and protecting abuse. It’s never been a charter for assholes to torment people for giggles. Twitter should have figured that out from the beginning.

This maximalist approach to free speech was integral to Twitter’s rise, but quickly created the conditions for abuse. Unlike Facebook and Instagram, which have always banned content and have never positioned themselves as platforms for free speech, Twitter has made an ideology out of protecting its most objectionable users. That ethos also made it a beacon for the internet’s most vitriolic personalities, who take particular delight in abusing those who use Twitter for their jobs. This spring, the Just Not Sports podcast posted video of sports fans reading a sampling of the hateful tweets that the sportswriters Sarah Spain and Julie DiCaro received while writing and reporting. The video amassed over 3.5 million views on YouTube. Its message: This level of depravity is commonplace on Twitter.

Looking back on Twitter’s early years, multiple former senior employees cite Twitter’s disproportionately white, male leadership — a frequent, factual critique of Silicon Valley’s biggest and most influential tech companies — as creating an environment where building tools to combat harassment was a secondary concern. “The original sin is a homogenous leadership,” one former senior employee told BuzzFeed News. “This is part of what exacerbated the abuse problem for sure — because they were often tone-deaf to the concern of users in the outside world, meaning women and people of color.”

Abuse doesn’t have the same meaning to white men as it does to women and people of color.

All the while, the abuse intensified and the public began to take notice. In 2013, Caroline Criado-Perez launched a campaign to put Jane Austen on UK currency and quickly became the target of more than 50 rape threats per hour — which forced Twitter to roll out a “report abuse” feature for individual tweets. The feature came roughly six years into the company’s history and more than five years after Waldman’s ordeal. “It feels like, not only did they have opportunities early on to tackle this, but they had the ability to step up and be a leader in this space — to be proactive instead of reactive,” Waldman said. “That they haven’t done that is beyond me and it’s reckless.”

Around that time, high-profile harassment cases became a weekly, if not daily, occurrence, especially in the UK. Sinéad O’Connor was driven off the service in 2011; she later told the Daily Mail she was “getting too much abuse.” Downton Abbey actor Lily James quit after she became the target of hundreds of hateful tweets about her appearance. Actor Matt Lucas had to shut down his account after trolls wouldn’t stop harassing him after the death of his partner.

In the US, stories of Twitter harassment of women, people of color, and religious minorities appeared with increasing frequency, coming to a head in August 2014, when Robin Williams’ daughter Zelda was forced to quit Twitter after trolls flooded her mentions with photoshopped images of her recently deceased father. Williams’ departure from Twitter went viral and prompted Twitter’s Trust and Safety head, Del Harvey, to condemn the attacks. “We will not tolerate abuse of this nature,” she said, noting that the company would work to find policy fixes to prevent cases like Williams’.

But of course they would and will and did.

It was also around this time that Twitter began broadcasting grisly ISIS beheadings and Gamergate’s multipronged misogynist harassment campaign toward female gamers. Harvey’s team rolled out more streamlined forms for reporting abuse, dispensing with its cumbersome nine-part questionnaire and adding back-end flagging tools for Twitter’s Trust and Safety team. One month later, Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist writer and video game critic, took to her Tumblr page and posted 157 of examples of misogyny, gendered insults, victim blaming, incitement to suicide, and rape and death threats she’d received in a recent six-day stretch on Twitter. Despite the overtures from Twitter, the trolls were winning.

Nearly all the former employees BuzzFeed News spoke to praised Harvey’s Trust and Safety team for its commitment to curbing harassment, but suggested that failures on the product side left it hamstrung. “They were on the front lines working with users and trying so hard,” a former senior employee said, “but getting caught in a rock and a hard place between what the stated mission of the company was and the resources available to create that environment.”

They were also limited by a workforce that multiple former employees say fundamentally didn’t understand what abuse looks and feels like. “The decision-makers were not people who got abuse and didn’t understand that it’s not about content, it’s about context,” Miley said. “If Twitter had people in the room who’d been abused on the internet — meaning not just straight, white males — when they were creating the company, I can assure you the service would be different.” A 2015 Women, Action, and the Media study revealed that, as of 2014, Twitter’s leadership was 79% male and 72% white.

Twitter put out a statement about the BuzzFeed article today, saying the usual blah blah blah. They haven’t fixed it and I doubt they ever will.

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