A dust-up between some anti-Semitic online trolls and a New York Times reporter is exposing some problematic holes in Twitter’s abuse-reporting policy.
Times reporter Jonathan Weisman wrote in a column about the experience that the trolling started after he retweeted an essay by Brookings Institution senior fellow Robert Kagan likening Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s rhetoric to fascism.
What followed was an onslaught of racist tweets and photos — including one of Weisman’s disembodied head and another of a trail of dollar bills leading to an open oven — from self-professed Trump supporters over an article Weisman himself didn’t even write.
The incident prompted Weisman to actually quit Twitter, not necessarily because of the abuse, but because of Twitter’s lackluster response to his reports of the incident.
When Weisman initially reported the abusive accounts using Twitter’s “report abusive behavior” feature, Twitter responded that it “could not determine a clear violation of the Twitter rules surrounding abusive behavior,” The Washington Post reported.
All that changed when Weisman tweeted that he’d be leaving the platform in favor of Facebook, which he argues is a less toxic environment.
“On Facebook, you’re supposed to use your real name, you’re supposed to have a verifiable email,” Weisman told The Washington Post.
Twitter then took notice, suddenly notifying Weisman that it had suspended at least nine accounts associated with the offending tweets. But the incident (along with a fake hate account set up to make a point by Quartz reporter Paul Smalera titled, appropriately, @HumanAwful) illustrates that despite Twitter’s yearslong appeal to crack down on hate speech, it’s failed to find a solid line between condemning hate speech and defending freedom of speech.
“There essentially is no gatekeeper, which is why it is laden with trolls. Racism, sexism, misogyny, hate and anger of all stripes finds a home on its timeline,” Smalera wrote.
Hopefully, the incident with Weisman will inspire Twitter to make good on its recent promise to the European Union to expunge hate speech from its annals in 24 hours.
“We remain committed to letting the tweets flow,” Karen White, Twitter’s head of public policy for Europe, told Time magazine. “However, there is a clear distinction between freedom of expression and conduct that incites violence and hate.”
Until Twitter strikes that balance, high-profile users like Weisman are opting out, possibly costing the platform more in the long run.
“They seem to be trying to get me back already,” Weisman told CNN, adding that if Twitter is serious about it, it will take a harder stance on racism. “Just making people provide a real name and a verifiable email address would help. Twitter is absurd, and the Twitter handles of anti-Semitic, racist trolls aren’t even trying to sound legit.”