Twitter toughens stance against sexual harassment

The Harvey Weinstein scandal and related #MeToo hashtag that has made it all too apparent the widespread nature of sexual harassment faced by women around the globe, Twitter has decided to toughen its stance against online abuse.

Twitter was once the bastion of free speech, with the short-lived Arab Spring described by some as the “Twitter revolution” for the influence the firm had on opening lines of public discussion and protest organisation. However, for all the good of unrestricted speech there is also a downside, and the last couple of years has seen Twitter become the platform of choice for a variety of bad actors from bullies and harassers, to Nazis, to Russian propaganda bots, to a president threatening nuclear war.

Earlier this month, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey made clear the social media firms objective to reduce the volume of abuse on its platform in a Twitter thread.

This announcement was followed up with an email to Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council members, the groups originally set up by the company back in 2016 to help deal with online harassment. The letter, which was leaked to Wired, reads:

Dear Trust & Safety Council members,

I’d like to follow up on Jack’s Friday night Tweetstorm about upcoming policy and enforcement changes. Some of these have already been discussed with you via previous conversations about the Twitter Rules update. Others are the result of internal conversations that we had throughout last week.

Here’s some more information about the policies Jack mentioned as well as a few other updates that we’ll be rolling out in the weeks ahead.

Non-consensual nudity

  • Current approach *We treat people who are the original, malicious posters of non-consensual nudity the same as we do people who may unknowingly Tweet the content. In both instances, people are required to delete the Tweet(s) in question and are temporarily locked out of their accounts. They are permanently suspended if they post non-consensual nudity again.
  • Updated approach *We will immediately and permanently suspend any account we identify as the original poster/source of non-consensual nudity and/or if a user makes it clear they are intentionally posting said content to harass their target. We will do a full account review whenever we receive a Tweet-level report about non-consensual nudity. If the account appears to be dedicated to posting non-consensual nudity then we will suspend the entire account immediately.

*Our definition of “non-consensual nudity” is expanding to more broadly include content like upskirt imagery, “creep shots,” and hidden camera content. Given that people appearing in this content often do not know the material exists, we will not require a report from a target in order to remove it.

*While we recognize there’s an entire genre of pornography dedicated to this type of content, it’s nearly impossible for us to distinguish when this content may/may not have been produced and distributed consensually. We would rather error on the side of protecting victims and removing this type of content when we become aware of it.

Unwanted sexual advances

  • Current approach *Pornographic content is generally permitted on Twitter, and it’s challenging to know whether or not sexually charged conversations and/or the exchange of sexual media may be wanted. To help infer whether or not a conversation is consensual, we currently rely on and take enforcement action only if/when we receive a report from a participant in the conversation.
  • Updated approach *We are going to update the Twitter Rules to make it clear that this type of behavior is unacceptable. We will continue taking enforcement action when we receive a report from someone directly involved in the conversation. Once our improvements to bystander reporting go live, we will also leverage past interaction signals (eg things like block, mute, etc) to help determine whether something may be unwanted and action the content accordingly.

Hate symbols and imagery (new)*We are still defining the exact scope of what will be covered by this policy. At a high level, hateful imagery, hate symbols, etc will now be considered sensitive media (similar to how we handle and enforce adult content and graphic violence). More details to come.

Violent groups (new)*We are still defining the exact scope of what will be covered by this policy. At a high level, we will take enforcement action against organizations that use/have historically used violence as a means to advance their cause. More details to come here as well (including insight into the factors we will consider to identify such groups).

Tweets that glorify violence (new)*We already take enforcement action against direct violent threats (“I’m going to kill you”), vague violent threats (“Someone should kill you”) and wishes/hopes of serious physical harm, death, or disease (“I hope someone kills you”). Moving forward, we will also take action against content that glorifies (“Praise be to for shooting up. He’s a hero!”) and/or condones (“Murdering makes sense. That way they won’t be a drain on social services”). More details to come.

We realize that a more aggressive policy and enforcement approach will result in the removal of more content from our service. We are comfortable making this decision, assuming that we will only be removing abusive content that violates our Rules. To help ensure this is the case, our product and operational teams will be investing heavily in improving our appeals process and turnaround times for their reviews.

In addition to launching new policies, updating enforcement processes and improving our appeals process, we have to do a better job explaining our policies and setting expectations for acceptable behavior on our service. In the coming weeks, we will be:

  • updating the Twitter Rules as we previously discussed (+ adding in these new policies)
  • updating the Twitter media policy to explain what we consider to be adult content, graphic violence, and hate symbols.
  • launching a standalone Help Center page to explain the factors we consider when making enforcement decisions and describe our range of enforcement options launching new policy-specific Help Center pages to describe each policy in greater detail, provide examples of what crosses the line, and set expectations for enforcement consequences
  • Updating outbound language to people who violate our policies (what we say when accounts are locked, suspended, appealed, etc).

We have a lot of work ahead of us and will definitely be turning to you all for guidance in the weeks ahead. We will do our best to keep you looped in on our progress.

All the best,

Head of Safety Policy

Rather than focus on banning pornographic material or specific hate groups like Nazis from the platform, the plans expand upon existing features to make it easier for both victims and third-party observers of sexual harassment to report abuse.

We may think of online harassement as a social media problem, but legal expert Aaron Minc makes clear that cyberbullying also happens through “email, text messages, group texts…online message boards, online chat rooms, and in a variety of other locations”. If people use the technology to communicate, the sad fact is that a minority will also use it to bully, threaten, and harass, and the effects can be debilitating.

Aaron Minc explains:

“Studies show cyberbullying can cause depression and long-term psychological scars in children. You can’t just wait for the problem to go away.”

Twitter is moving in the right direction by implementing its new policies, but to really address online bullying and harassment, we need an education campaign where people are shown the very real effects of their virtual comments. It is too easy to sit behind a keyboard and not see the person at the receiving end of the abuse as a three dimensional human being, and that needs to end.

Photograph by Lobo Studio Hamburg

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