Is Twitter Safer? “European Twitter Supremo” Claims Progress in War Against Trolls

On Christmas Day, the Independent in England ran an exclusive interview with Bruce Daisley, the so-called “European Twitter Supremo.” The interview has gotten considerably play in the British media, despite the fact that it wasn’t so much an interview as it was a animated press release. Read carefully, the article is merely an opportunity for Daisley to tout Twitter’s success in the “war on trolls” and ridding the social media service of tweeters who express violent extremist views without, apparently, any request by Media Editor Ian Burrell for specific facts or figures.

Unchallenged Claims

The chief take-away from the “interview” was Daisley’s self-congratulatory sum-up of Twitter’s efforts: “We have spent longer and put more effort into user safety than any other issue. The measures we’ve taken correlate directly with a reduction in the amount of bad behaviour on the platform.”

Daisley highlighted two initiatives that he says have made a significant difference in combatting online abuse. First, when Twitter identifies someone is acting abusively, they send that user a request for phone number verification. “That allows us to tell the user,” Daisley said, “that what they do here exists in the real world. It normally acts as a stark reminder. Secondly, it allows us to see whether that user has already got other accounts set up on their phone that have been suspended.”

The second initiative, Daisley said, was the implementation of new tools on the Twitter service that give users the ability to mute trolls or block their accounts altogether. Twitter also makes it possible for users to share their lists of blocked users, which in turn makes it easier for Twitter to identify the worst offenders on the service.

The net result, Daisley told the Independent, is that the measures “had led to a massive increase in the number of reports and made people feel a lot safer.”

This is where a little more journalistic curiosity by Burrell would have been useful. How many reports did Twitter receive in 2015? What was the breakdown of the types of complaints? How were those complaints resolved? Did the company detect any trends that might be useful for educators, parents, law enforcement, etc.?

Much more importantly, by what measure can Twitter claim that people feel “a lot safer”? Spend just a couple of minutes flipping through Google News and it becomes clear that the social media service is still having problems with bullying, abuse, and harassment. Here are some examples from just the last couple of weeks:

Discernable Effort

Let’s be clear: My chief criticism here is to the Independent’s decision to label a press release as an “interview”; the latter implies some follow-up questions for verification, some background research, a little investigative effort. In fact, there is no question that Twitter has put a lot of effort into addressing the issue of bullying, but we have no way of gauging the company’s actual progress apart from some Trump-esque assertions of success. (“We’re doing great! Massive reporting! Lots safer!”) The Independent’s article is something less than an homage to All the President’s Men.

Here are some of the steps that Twitter took during the past year to reduce the incidence of bullying and abuse on its service:

  • Most importantly, the company launched a new Safety Center that provides users with tools for responding to abusers, as well as information about the company’s policies and enforcement procedures. The Center also contains educational material for teens, parents, and educators.
  • Last February, the company announced a number of changes in the report of abuse and the company’s handling of those reports;
  • In April, the company announced that it was broadening its definition of abuse to include “threats of violence against others or promot[ing] violence against others,” which gave Twitter the ability to take steps against efforts to radicalize users. The company also introduced an efforcement tool to lock-down accounts for a specific periods of time (what parents know as “time-out”) as a means of addressing temporary bullying situations.
  • Most recently, the company launched an anti-bullying campaign called “#IAmAWitness” (as well as a compelling emoji) to encourage teens and adults to take a public stand against bullying.

These are all positive steps, and Twitter has garnered some praise from safety advocates for its efforts. As Laura Higgins, Online Safety Operations Manager at UK Safer Internet Centre, told the Indpendent, Twitter has made “huge improvements” in its handling of online abuse.

But given the seriousness of online bullying, social media trolling, and other forms of digital harassment, mere platitudes and self-congratulatory statements are not sufficient. Social media companies have vast amounts of data and powerful data mining capabilities, and they should be using those tools to better inform the public about the actual levels of online abuse and the effectiveness of their efforts to reduce it. That’s the kind of information parents, educators, and teens need in order to make better decisions about the risks of using a particular social media service, and whether those risks outweigh the benefits. Here’s the hashtag we really need: #DataNotPlatitudes.

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