Copyright Marisa Allegra Williams (@marisa) for Twitter, Inc.

Censorship & Trolls: The Battle For Twitter’s Soul

on Friday, Aug. 22nd

It feels slightly ridiculous to talk about Twitter being in a state of crisis while the world falls apart, but the social media network has become the main artery for news around the world. Which means that a broken Twitter helps to foster a broken world.

Not only do headlines and links spread across the service in 140 characters, but actual news is reported directly in places as far apart as Ferguson, Missouri and the Gaza Strip as reporters, citizen journalists, and ordinary citizens alike on the scene deliver brief dispatches in real time.

Which means that Twitter’s decision to suspend some accounts linking to the video of execution of journalist James Foley this week set off warning bells for journalists like Glenn Greenwald.

Given the savagery of the Foley video, it’s easy in isolation to cheer for its banning on Twitter. But that’s always how censorship functions: it invariably starts with the suppression of viewpoints which are so widely hated that the emotional response they produce drowns out any consideration of the principle being endorsed.

In his arguments Greenwald acknowledges that Twitter, and Google and Facebook the other two major filters of information in all our lives, are privately held companies. He argues, however, that they fill a role deep in the public trust that was once reserved for public utilities.

It’s an argument that I buy: these companies have become too important to the free flow of information. Their success has shackled them with a kind of responsibility that goes beyond what we’ve ever expected out of, say, cable news. The power of Facebook to put its thumb on the scale of history by favoring one stream of stories over another—say, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge over the events in Ferguson—may seem innocuous at first, but apply that to an election and you have the stuff of cyberpunk nightmares.

Twitter’s handling of the Foley video is ham handed at best, more proof that CEO Dick Costolo is doing a poor job of stewarding one of the most important companies in the world. The suspensions of accounts has not even been uniform: the New York Post got off the hook despite posting a photo from the video—albeit not a graphic one—which violates the seemingly spirit of the rule.

There is a strong case to be made, however, that something should be done about controlling the flow of graphic, disturbing images on the service. After all, it was just a week ago (oh, God, this month) that Zelda Williams, daughter of Robin Williams, abandoned Twitter after trolls sent her images that were doctored to look like pictures of her dead father.

William’s experience is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to trolls on the Internet. If anything a few graphic images is getting off easy, horrible as that sounds. Truly dedicated trolls will hack into social media identities, drain PayPal accounts, and launch vicious verbal attacks on family and friends over every medium available.

That sounds like hyperbole, but it is exactly what has happened in the indie video game community this week after the ex-boyfriend of a developer sought “revenge” by accusing his former partner of trading sex for reviews. Never mind the fact that the reviews do not exist, the seriously backwards elements of the video game community went straight to Defcon 5 and may wind up running some of the most creative voices in the industry away.

It would be hard for Twitter by itself to stop that level of behavior, but the company’s silence on the vicious harassment that women—especially women in public positions—receive has been deafening. It is a silence that has allowed a breed of supertroll to emerge.

The objection to linking the Foley video, and posting images from it, is an objection to having hideous material appear in the timeline without warning. Many of us already experienced this with scores of images out of Gaza earlier in the summer. For the record: pictures of dead children are never easy to deal with when you are not emotionally ready for them. What is and isn’t objectionable is always in the eye of the beholder, in this case the end user.

So why not leave the decision whether to open yourself up to such material in the hands of the user?

Twitter has been experimenting of late—idiotically, I might add—with conflating retweets with favorites. This raises the stakes on favoriting potentially controversial tweets by spreading them to followers in a way that has more in common with Facebook’s algorithm than the transparent nature of Twitter’s retweet protocol.

Instead of taking control out of the hands of users Twitter would be wiser to hand them more tools. Filters that could keep graphic images at bay. That could pen vicious trolls in dark oubliettes from which their plaintive cries go unheard.

Here’s how it could work:

  • Require graphic content to be accompanied either by an inline hashtag—e.g. #GC for Graphic Content, or the familiar #NSFW—or with a metadata tag. The latter could be a checkable box that would be required of any third-party client (like my beloved Tweetbot).
  • Provide a timeline filter that would weed out the Graphic Content. Go ahead and have the default on this be set to “On” for new users, since Twitter’s biggest concern these days is not scaring away newbies.
  • Provide another filter for “Known Trolls” and let people opt-in to blocking the whole damn list. This one is politically dangerous, so the criteria for a “Known Troll” should be clearly posted. We could start with those who casually make rape threats.
  • Restore the old “Block” function. It’s not enough to mute a troll, they need to be blinded as well.
  • Track the IP addresses of “Known Trolls” and be prepared to bind those as well, to keep them from “respawning” easily with new accounts. In the end they’d only be able to see each other. Which is what Hell must be like: wall to wall trolls.

At the end of the day there is no surefire way to stop a determined troll. The fight for something resembling civilized discourse, let alone safe spaces for discussion of sensitive topics, is a never ending battle. There is progress that can be made, but it has to be facilitated by the platform makers if our social media tools are going to fulfill their promise of being better than the mass media of generations past.

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