Over the last few days, Twitter has come under growing criticism for its failure to do more to curb misogynist abuse and threats of violence against women, particularly feminists, who use the service. The push to convince Twitter to act was mounted in response to a barrage of rape threats and other harassment launched against a British woman who was a leader in, of all things, a campaign to put Jane Austen’s face on the ten pound note.
Anyone who has spent more than five minutes on Twitter knows that sexist (and racist, and homophobic, and transphobic, and ableist…) abuse is a major problem at the site, but many have questioned some of the campaign’s proposals for reform, which have included paywalls, non-anonymity policies, and a one-click “report abuse” button.
Twitter is a complex ecosystem, and making big changes to the way it works is bound to have unintended consequences. The bigger the changes, the bigger the consequences, and each of these three ideas has serious flaws.
To turn Twitter into a paid site would, as many have noted, impose obvious financial barriers for low-income users. Beyond that, it would necessarily leave the site’s signup process more complex and less straightforward, making it more difficult for people to sign up on short notice in response to breaking news or similarly time-sensitive prods. The need to confirm identity and payment mechanisms would also pose logistical difficulties for people without credit cards or bank accounts — not just the poor, but also the young and others.
To end anonymity on Twitter would drive away many marginalized and oppressed people who depend on the site’s privacy for their safety — political dissidents, student activists, survivors of violence and abuse, sex workers, and so on and on. The ability to use Twitter without disclosing your identity is one of the site’s core features, and it’s not going away anytime soon.
The idea of a one-click “Report Abuse” button has less of an obvious downside; Twitter already has a similar mechanism for reporting spam, after all. But spam is a problem that can be detected and addressed objectively, even automatically — it’s not hard to construct an algorithm to determine which accounts are spam accounts, and the reporting button is primarily just a mechanism for directing Twitter to initiate that process.
Abuse is much more complex, and subjective. There’s no algorithm that will reliably and effectively distinguish between true abuse and tweeters who are quoting others’ abusive comments, discussing the problem of abusive language, or just joking around with friends. (Caitlin Moran, the spearhead of the current campaign, herself jokingly threatened to sexually mutilate someone she considered a Twitter troll just two months ago.)
If Twitter installs a one-click “Report Abuse” button, the effect will be to encourage anyone who feels slighted, dissed, or harassed on the service — or who just doesn’t like what someone else is saying — to report them. Inevitably, some folks with high profiles will encourage their followers to report annoying users en masse, with the effect of swamping the complaint system and making it more difficult for complaints to be processed quickly and effectively. (Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine some users launching coordinated campaigns for just that purpose.)
There’s no easy fix to the problem of abuse on Twitter, in other words. But there is more that the site can be doing, and today they took a welcome step in that direction.
This weekend Twitter announced that they were rolling out a “Report Tweet” button on their iPhone platform for broader adoption in the future. Here’s how it works on the phone:
When you click on the “…” (more) button while viewing a tweet, it brings up a screen with three options: “Copy link to Tweet,” “Mail Tweet,” and (in red) “Report Tweet.” Clicking on that button lets you select whether you want to make a report based on spam, abuse, or a hacked account. If you then click the option for abuse, it lets you choose among impersonation, trademark infringement, harassment, spam, concern about self-harm, or advertising as the issue. Clicking “Harassment” there takes you to Twitter’s abuse reporting webpage, where you’re asked to identify the nature of the harassment, identify the account and tweet, and answer a series of questions about the nature of the activity.
This is what an abuse reporting process should look like — straightforward to initiate, but specific as to the nature of the accusation, and as a result not suited to casual false reporting. The button is a step in the right direction, and I hope to see it adopted across platforms.