An extensive BuzzFeed profile puts the spotlight on Twitter’s decade-long policy of tolerating abuse and hate speech in the interest of supporting free speech. Some might say Twitter is exhibiting a blind deference to an open-ended definition of free speech.
The issue is coming to a head because of recent high-profile incidents and because of the enormous reach of Twitter’s social network, which has been increasingly used by large enterprises as a marketing channel. In the U.S. today, 66 percent of all companies with 100 or more employees use Twitter for their marketing, including 83 percent of the Fortune 500 companies, according to Brandwatch.
Yet it’s a platform that has, Charlie Warzel writes in the Aug. 11 BuzzFeed profile, “made an ideology out of protecting its most objectionable users.”
While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg leapt to publicly respond to a single accusation of political bias, Warzel details countless times that Twitter leadership has shrugged off—if they’ve responded at all—reports of incessant abuse, with comments that amount to, “Yeah, we stink at that.”
In July, when “Ghostbusters” actress Leslie Jones announced she was taking a break from Twitter, after suffering a deluge of stunningly offensive comments, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey reached out to her and very soon afterward implemented a little blue “Verified” icon that verifies a well-known personality and builds in a few filters for keeping out spam and blocking offensive users.
But it’s the very rare user, with the possible exception of just President Barack Obama and Caitlyn Jenner, who has felt his or her complaints have been heard by Twitter.
Days after Dorsey reached out to Jones, writer Jessica Valenti told her 120,000-plus followers that waking up to a “rape and death threat directed at my 5 year old daughter” was the last straw. “I am sick of this s–t,” Valenti tweeted. “Sick of saying over and over how scary this is, sick of being told to suck it up.”
Warzel reports that Twitter’s practices weren’t simple laziness, but a policy.
Ev Williams, Biz Stone and Jason Goldman worked at the Google-owned Blogger before moving to Twitter and they brought with them the philosophy established by Google attorney Alexander Macgillivray, a “die-hard speech advocate,” writes Warzel.
Warzel reports that Blogger made a core principle of the universal right to publish, despite outside criticism. “We don’t get involved in adjudicating whether something is libel or slander,” Goldman told Forbes in 2005.
After Zelda Williams quit Twitter to avoid the disturbing photo-shopped images of her father’s death that Twitter trolls were sending her, Twitter announced it would removed certain imagery of deceased loved ones, out of respect to their families.
Twitter Policy of Protecting Abusive Language Called Into Question
A senior engineer who left Twitter in 2013 told Warzel, “You have this opposition between defending the user’s experience and not shutting down speech all while there’s this big, toxic mass of people that are abusing. … That tension has now … flipped on its head. It’s clear something needs to be done.”
Jan Dawson, chief analyst with Jackdaw Research, agreed that the problem has been building for years.
“The issue is partly one of policy and partly one of execution, as Twitter does have rules and guidelines around abuse, but takes action on reported abuses too seldom and too slowly,” Dawson told eWEEK.
“The fact that high-profile celebrities (mostly women) have started to abandon the service over abuse issues is an indication that it needs to do far more to protect its users,” Dawson continued.
“I really don’t think this is a free speech issue, but rather an issue of will to actually get something done here. The line between acceptable and unacceptable speech is generally pretty clear cut in these cases, but Twitter has failed to act too often,” he said.
Twitter’s accommodation of a no-limits approach to free speech also highlights a larger reality. While protests, debates and flat-out name-calling used to take place in the public square, or in the streets—on government property—they now largely take place on platforms like Twitter and Facebook— essentially corporate property in cyberspace. And so, new rules apply—or, in the case of Twitter, fewer rules apply.
Freedom of speech crosses a legal line when a threat is one that any rational person would understand to be a genuine threat of violence. If a person with a gun is standing in front of you and says, “I’m going to kill you,” is the threat perceived as being as legitimate as if a stranger tweets the same threat at someone?
“Legally, courts have always struggled to decide where the line between protected speech and non-protected threats begins,” Meredith Rose, a staff attorney with public watchdog Public Knowledge, told eWEEK.
“In the 20th century, the focus was on where the speech took place; privately owned and operated spaces could impose their own rules for speech that took place on their grounds. Given that the biggest online platforms right now are privately owned, the tension between that way of thinking—’my space, my rules’—and the practical realities of online speech are getting harder to ignore.”
Rose added, “For better or worse, these platforms do hold an immense amount of power to regulate their users’ speech.”
Twitter posted a response to the article on its blog Aug. 11, saying it hadn’t read the story until it was published.
“We feel there are inaccuracies in the details and unfair portrayals but rather than go back and forth with BuzzFeed, we are going to continue our work on making Twitter a safer place. There is a lot of work to do but please know we are committed, focused, and will have updates to share soon,” Twitter’s posted response said.