A Possible Solution To Twitter's Difficult Problem Of Abusive Behavior: Let People Speak, Don't Force Everyone To Listen

from the provide-tools dept

BuzzFeed had a long and interesting article earlier this week noting Twitter’s ongoing difficulty in figuring out an appropriate way to deal with harassment and abuse that is often heaped upon certain users — especially women and minorities. The article is interesting — even as Twitter disputes some of its claims. It’s also noteworthy that this debate is not even remotely new. Last year, I wrote about it, suggesting that one possible solution is to switch Twitter from being a platform into being a protocol — on which anyone could then build services. In that world, Twitter could then offer various filters if it wanted — while other providers could compete with different filters or services. Then the tweets could flow without Twitter having to take responsibility, but there would be options (possibly many options) for those who were dealing with abuse or harassment.

Not surprisingly, that kind of suggestion is unlikely to ever be adopted, but reading through the BuzzFeed article, something else struck me. To some extent, the article seemed a bit unfair in portraying some of Twitter’s execs as willfully clueless about the abuse and harassment. It repeatedly portrays those who support freedom of expression as somehow being unreasonable extremists. Here’s one example:

Weeks later, when a rash of beheading videos appeared, Costolo gave similar takedown orders, causing Twitter?s free speech advocates, Gabriel Stricker and Vijaya Gadde, to call an emergency policy meeting.

Inside the meeting, attended by Costolo, Stricker, Gadde, and product head Kevin Weil (now Instagram?s product lead) and first reported by BuzzFeed News, tensions rose as Costolo?s desire to build a more palatable network that was marketable and ultimately attractive to new users clashed with Stricker and Gadde?s desire for radically free expression.

?You really think we should have videos of people being murdered?? someone who attended the meeting recalls Costolo arguing, while Stricker reportedly compared Costolo?s takedown of undesirable content to deleting the Zapruder film after objections from the Kennedy family. Ultimately, the meeting ended with the group deciding to carve out policy exceptions to keep up grisly content for newsworthiness, according to one person present. Though Stricker and Gadde won, one source described a frustrated Costolo leaving in disagreement. ?I think if you guys have your way the only people using Twitter will be ISIS and the ACLU,? Costolo said, according to this person.

But I think part of the issue is that people are confusing the nature of free speech, a la the famed xkcd on the issue:

However, rather than the way most people take this xkcd to mean that it’s right for sites to kick off people, I’d argue that it’s something that Twitter itself should be thinking about. To date, much of its plans to deal with abuse seem to be focused on kicking people off the site who abuse the site’s terms of service. This has created a few flare ups here and there of people who feel this is improper or unfair — and that the process is arbitrary. But some of that may stem from the fact that people at Twitter are just as confused about the point of the xkcd above as many of its users are.

That is, I think the “free speech wing” of Twitter is absolutely correct that the site should bend over backwards to support the right and ability of people to say pretty much whatever they want to say. But what they don’t need to do is force others to listen. That is Twitter should be focused, heavily, on building much, much, much, much more flexible and robust tools for users to curate their own experience. If they want to let in everything, they should be able to do so. If they want to want to block certain types of users, they should be able to do so. If they want to block based on keywords, they should be able to do so.

To date, Twitter has mostly offered fairly crude and mostly ineffective tools for users who are trying to deal with harassment. There is the ability to report abuse, but that leads to all sorts of problems and arbitrary decisions about who is violating the terms of service and who is not. The other two tools are the ability to “block” certain users and to “mute” others. There’s a subtle difference here: if you block someone, they can discover that (and that leads to its own set of problems). If you “mute” them, they can still read your tweets, you just won’t see theirs. People have created “blocklists,” but again, these tend to be pretty crude and ineffective.

Giving end users not just a full suite of tools to figure out how they get to curate their own experience — combined with the ability to share the “recipes” one creates — could actually be super powerful. So, for example, say I don’t want to view tweets from users who have had accounts for less than 6 months (a lot of abuse comes from new users) or who haven’t actually uploaded an account profile image (so called “eggs”). Let me create that as an option — and then share that “filter” or “recipe” for others to use. So, someone could create a filter/recipe that only shows notifications from users who have more than 1,000 followers and who have tweeted at least twice per week over the last year. Or, maybe a filter that automatically blocks anyone a particular politician has retweeted. The possibilities go on and on.

To some extent, this opens something of an opportunity to go back to the way that Twitter felt in the early days. Somewhat hilariously (in retrospect), in the early days, some claimed that one of the reasons why Twitter was so awesome was that there was “no spam or trolls” because you self-selected everyone you followed. It was a pure curation system. But that was only really true of the earliest incarnation of Twitter, before it incorporated replies, notifications and retweets. With those three things, your own curation skills only accounted for part of what you could be exposed to on Twitter. There became lots of ways for third parties to insert themselves into the conversation. And, to some extent, this is actually really great. I’ve met some fantastic people and learned a lot thanks to Twitter’s ability to connect people. But it also opened the door to trolls and harassment and Twitter’s just had so much difficulty figuring out what to do about it.

I get that there are two very large (and almost diametrically opposed) camps of people on Twitter who think that Twitter should either do nothing (Camp 1) … or that they should be kicking a lot more people off the service (Camp 2). I think neither of those camps is being reasonable. For the first camp, ignoring the fact that harassment and spam and other stuff happens is silly. If you have a 100% open system, it gets abused, period. It’s a mess. But camp 2 underestimates the subjective nature of what “harassment” is and the importance of being able to make use of a platform like Twitter. In other contexts, we’ve seen how arbitrary policies have resulted in questionable removals from sites, and that creates some serious problems.

Recognizing that Twitter is unlikely to ever move to my original solution, of offering a protocol rather than a platform, it seems that giving the power to each user to better curate and filter their own experience seems like a much more workable idea. In fact, it could help bring about the early Twitter experience, when users really did curate their entire experience. And, contrary to the concerns some supposedly expressed and which were repeated in the BuzzFeed article, it would seem to create a situation that might increase user adoption of the platform, rather than decrease it.

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Comments on “A Possible Solution To Twitter's Difficult Problem Of Abusive Behavior: Let People Speak, Don't Force Everyone To Listen”

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Ninja (profile) says:

This sounds like a good idea. It reminds some karma systems on some sites where you start with a lot of restrictions but as you participate you get ‘points’ or ‘karma’ and you unlock further functionalities. Not a perfect system, can be gamed but it helps a ton.

I do think things like Russian propaganda zombie army or a determined troll would still be able to go through most barriers but it would be much harder and even after breaking all barriers said troll would risk being blocked by everyone leaving him effectively alone. As I mentioned about the cheaters in online games: let them play with themselves.

Anonymous Coward says:

The problem with Twitter is that it lets ANYONE freely talk to ANYONE ELSE.

At first you may think “yeah, so?!”. But humans don’t work like that. Since the beginning of humanity we have had communities of people who had a lot of differences with other communities of people. And whenever two such communities clashed, there would be wars, and so on, because they both couldn’t understand each other well and couldn’t tolerate each other anymore.

So what Twitter needs is to make it possible for users to isolate themselves from others on Twitter, and be able to create their own like-minded communities without random intrusions into that community.

It’s kind of what you said, too, but in a different way I guess.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Otherwise known as the 'It's the only way to be sure' plan

That’s rather like saying if you don’t like spam then don’t use email. Sure no email means no digital spam, but that involves cutting yourself off from an otherwise useful to very useful service.

Not to mention a ‘solution’ like that is handing the trolls a win of epic proportions, and demonstrating that they can crush a social service at any time they want simply by being more annoying.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

There are good Twitter substitutes now that don’t silence or ban anybody.

But, again, if you’re forcing people who don’t want to hear to listen, then you get overrun by spam and abusive behavior, and that’s no good either. I think simply declaring “we let everything through” is one of those things that sounds good in theory, but is an absolute disaster in practice once it has any amount of scale.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

But, again, if you’re forcing people who don’t want to hear to listen, then you get overrun by spam and abusive behavior

Who said anything about forcing? Publishing stuff doesn’t force people to read it.

Anyway, I like your idea. How about trying it on Techdirt? techdirt.com would just be one possible view of the comment stream.

Samuel Abram (profile) says:

What about doxxing?

I think this is a great idea. However I don’t think making twitter a protocol addresses the problem of doxxing, which is amplified by the Streisand Effect. Sure, users will be able to better curate their experience, but it becomes a problem when the ill effects of doxxing bleed over into the real world, such as Swatting and harassing not only the doxxed person, but their family.

Mike, I think you have a great idea! But like I said, more needs to be done.

John David Galt (profile) says:

Re: What about doxxing?

So long as there are unmoderated or lightly moderated platforms, doxxing will exist. Whatever solution emerges will have to be much broader than Twitter or even the Internet. I predict it will boil down to some combination of (1) people learning to better protect the data that makes them vulnerable, and (2) discrimination laws that stop employers or landlords from kicking you out for reasons that are none of their business. (Which will only be enforceable by requiring authorities to sign off on every firing and every eviction, as they already do in some places.)

As far as SWATting, that is a much more serious problem and the authorities need to deal with it directly — both by making false police reports a felony if someone gets hurt, and by changing police ROE so that SWAT teams don’t rush out, blast everyone in sight, and ask questions later just because of one phone call. This dovetails with the broader problem that too many local governments have SWAT teams and are too willing to use them in cases that don’t justify the use of deadly force.

NoahVail (profile) says:

Using Tweet-Filter browser plugins for now

“If they want to block based on keywords, they should be able to do so.”

I gave up waiting for Twitter to implement keyword filtering.
I use Larry Filter & Open Tweet Filter to hide the 10 Billionth honorarium for [dead celeb].

(I’d pay good money for something to filter out sportball tweets.)

Keyword filtering is 101. I don’t know why Twitter didn’t include it years ago. Maybe for the same reason Netflix makes it hard to filter by rating on every search.

Users having control makes execs itch.

Anonymous Coward says:

I admit some naivete regarding twitter

But I don’t get this attitude on twitter –

“So, someone could create a filter/recipe that only shows notifications from users who have more than 1,000 followers and who have tweeted at least twice per week over the last year. “

I was recently involved in a (non-trolling) discussion with someone on twitter who abruptly ended our conversation by dismissing me as someone with less than a hundred followers (and therefore not worth talking to). People who act that way make me feel like they’re there just for the PR and not for productive dialogue.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: I admit some naivete regarding twitter

I was recently involved in a (non-trolling) discussion with someone on twitter who abruptly ended our conversation by dismissing me as someone with less than a hundred followers (and therefore not worth talking to). People who act that way make me feel like they’re there just for the PR and not for productive dialogue.

That was just a random example of a possible filter — but it is true that using the number of followers someone has is a useful signal (not necessarily the only one, but a useful one) in whether or not the person is a legitimate user vs. a troll. That’s not to say all users with low follower counts are trolls, but for some users, it might be a useful signalling tool.

The point is, however, that let the filter work however individuals want and let them decide.

Anonymous Coward says:

Twitter's problem is that they're all newbies

The people running Twitter are newbies who lack significant long-term Internet (and ARPAnet) (and Usenet) (and CSnet) experience. We fought all these problems decades ago, and developed some pretty good methods for dealing with them — not perfect, of course, but pretty good.

Because the people running Twitter weren’t around then, they didn’t learn at the time. And because they haven’t bothered to hire any of us who are veterans of that era, and have all of this expertise in our heads, they aren’t learning from us now. The most likely outcome of this is that they’ll continue to flail, as they have for the last ten years, until some other company comes along and does what they’re doing, only better.

Protip: if you’re running an Internet-centric startup, you need at least one person who had an email address ending in .arpa. And you need to PAY ATTENTION to what they tell you, because it’s highly likely that they’ve already made 47 of the mistakes you’re about to make and can divert you from them before you repeat them. You ignore them at your peril — see, for example, Twitter, its epidemic abuse problem, and it’s laughably incompetent approaches to dealing with it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Twitter's problem is that they're all newbies

You’re exactly right. I made a comment about Twitter’s strategic error (not hiring people who’ve fought these battles many times before). I didn’t try to write a comment about the tactics Twitter should employ in order to deal with this (a) because it would be quite lengthy and (b) it’s not my responsibility to fix Twitter’s problems unless they want to pay me — and pay me quite well.

But in deference to your point, I’ll briefly discuss one of the tactics that Twitter should use — or rather, should have used.

1. Plan for abuse at the whiteboard stage.

Every online service that can be abused will be abused. Count on it. Take an adversarial role and think about how your service can be gamed, DoS’d, repurposed, retargeted, anything, everything. This will help you identify the design errors before you write the first line of code. It won’t catch them all. But it should at least catch some of the most egregious ones.

And, armed with the knowledge that you only caught some of them, put in place mechanisms to deal with the ones that are going to surface later — the ones you didn’t catch. Those mechanisms need to be in place, tested, scalable, and robust before you launch. Afterwards, it’s too late. Much too late.

You should do this because, frankly, it’s damn obvious. Look at every other service out there that proceeded yours. It happened to them. It will happen to you. Don’t blow it off out of naivete or arrogance or blindness or the rush to go live, because you will get burned later.

Just like Twitter is getting burned now. They failed, on an epic scale, to deal with this over a decade ago. Now they have a massive problem, one that they may not be able to solve.

Any of us with sufficient experience could have told them this up-front and saved them tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars, thousands of hours of time, and some large but non-quantifiable amount of goodwill. But they didn’t bother, because they’re mere newbies and simply not experienced enough to know what they don’t know.

@b says:

Can I buy a vowel

Alas, Web 2.0 Start-up haven’t amassed sufficient cleverness and wealth to hire any mIRC veterans like yourselves.

It sounds as if previous generations already solved text-based bullying, which is really excellent news.

Now if only the old guard could bash out a few Wikipedia articles for those tried-and-tested solutions, instead of waiting around for that dreamy job offer from Twitter.

Then we’d really be getting somewhere….

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Can I buy a vowel

We have written about it — copiously. Wikipedia is not the only or the best or the most repository of such information. The archives of numerous operations-related mailing lists and Usenet newsgroups contain more than enough accumulated wisdom to get anyone started. Anyone too lazy, too stupid, too naive, or too ignorant to avail themselves of those lessons learned deserves to fail — just like Twitter’s doing.

But we’re not obligated to spoonfeed it to them or anyone else. We did our part. We made mistakes, we fixed them, we wrote about them. It’s not our responsibility to get mere ignorant newbies like the alleged “leaders” at Twitter to pay attention to things that they should have paid attention to many years ago.

Anonymous Coward says:

Happily, the exact solution that you’re looking for already exists.

It’s called GNU Social. It’s basically a twitter-alike service.

And it’s a federated network, like email. Anyone on any GNU Social site instance can follow or DM anyone on any other instance in the federation. You’re not siloed on one site. If you don’t like the policies of one server, you can hop onto another server with policies more to your liking. No one server admin can clamp down on freedom of speech.

And if you want to start your own server, it’s as easy to install as WordPress. All you need is some hosting, a database of some kind (like mysql), and PHP.

There’s many, many servers already in the federation for people who just want to sign up and get started.

Croaker Jianghu says:

Re:free speech zones

So…would a free speech zone on twitter be like college campuses?

’10’×10’over there, past the ashtray on the outside edge of the parking garage’as dreadlocked white feminists with seven out of wedlock kids, and six pointed nipple-star tattoos follow, and five of her cultmstes chastise you about how a lack of allegiance to uber-zionism makes you Hitler becuz, you mentioned MLKs mistresses?

Cool. I’m in. Murica, love it or lease it.

But-great idea on the platform/protocol. A couple questions though:
-if they made that change, would it inhibit Booz Allens ability to flame bait ordinary mentally ill people until they ‘radicalize?’
-would the well known Israeli hasbara/Squad8200 be able to use te inkwink Israel backdoor to reverse IP ppl it doesn’t like or cant control, and then attack them?
-would InfraGard et ass still be able to use it’s hidden networks of hackers and trolls to call the DHS when they get butthurt?
-would the FBI and its toilet slaves, the LEIU etc till be able to use dozens of phony accounts to wage questionable investigations on unsuspecting individuals during election cycles?

So many questions….

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:free speech zones

I don’t think the commentary is posing the notion of a “free speech zone” except that the entirely of twitter should be one. The point is that it should also be a “free to ignore” zone.

Sounds reasonable to me. Someone’s right to free speech does not mean that I should be compelled to listen to that speech.

John85851 (profile) says:

Crowdsource the value of posts

Keep in mind that most Internet trolls make stupid comments to get attention, so the solution is to take away that attention. Here’s an idea from an online commenting system, possibly Disqus: crowdsource the postings.

What this means is that people vote up or down on the posts. When an post gets enough negative comments, it’s hidden *but* it’s still shown to the person who posted it. This way, the poster won’t claim his post has been deleted or he’s being “censored”. Then if he posts enough comments that get down-voted, all of his posts are hidden like this. He can continue to post anything he likes, but he no longer has an audience and he no longer gets any attention. He’ll wonder why people are ignoring him and move onto another site.

Strypey (user link) says:

Re: Crowdsource the value of posts

The first site I know of to build in user-drive moderation was Slashdot.org. It scales a lot better than the manual moderation we used on Indymedia, but the problem is that as well as being used to hide the self-masturbatory rantings of trolls, organised crowds of political trolls can use it to suppress speech they disagree with. Over time, this can create discourse bubbles, where deluded people (eg climate change “skeptics”) never get challenged by evidence that contradicts their beliefs. There’s no perfect solution to the fact that a tiny minority of people get their jollies from pissing on other people’s rugs (“that really tied the room together”), devs just have to do our best, and users need to take some responsibility for learning to use the tools, and reporting problems (squeaky wheel gets oiled).

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