Why Twitter can't tame the trolls
'Ghostbusters' actress Leslie Jones is the latest star to quit the social network after enduring horrific abuse. Tanya Sweeney asks if the social media platform is doing enough to combat the problem
Published 21/07/2016 | 02:30
At its inception a decade ago, Twitter appeared to be the internet's one true leveller. The chasm between celebrity and civilian looked to have been eroded for good, and all of a sudden, it was possible to access the inner musings of the world's most powerful, influential and downright unknowable stars. The social network, propelled simply by people power, now boasts 310 million monthly active users.
But the funny thing about people power is that some people are wont to abuse their privilege. And public figures have never felt so exposed to scrutiny or abuse as they do now.
When the trolling gets tough - and in 550m tweets a day, there is plenty of abuse to go around - Twitter's high-profile users can either take the heat or leave the kitchen. And a growing number have decided on the latter: 'Ghostbusters' star Leslie Jones is the latest Twitter casualty.
Jones has been a stand-up comedian for years, but landed fully on-radar with her star turn in the rebooted Hollywood franchise. But after weeks of trolling and online abuse, the star was forced to click 'deactivate' on her account with "tears and a very sad heart". According to this week's disheartening reports, Jones said she had been called an 'ape' and other racist abuse and 'even got a pic with semen on my face'.
As part of her swansong, Jones tweeted: "I feel like I'm in a personal hell. I didn't do anything to deserve this. It's just too much. It shouldn't be like this. So hurt right now. I use(d) to wonder why some celebs don't have Twitter accts now I know. You can't be nice and communicate with fans cause people (are) crazy."
Twitter weren't long in putting together a supportive statement: "This type of abusive behaviour is not permitted on Twitter, and we've taken action on many of the accounts reported to us by both Leslie and others," a spokesperson asserted. "We rely on people to report this type of behaviour to us but we are continuing to invest heavily in improving our tools and enforcement systems to prevent this kind of abuse.
"We realise we still have a lot of work in front of us before Twitter is where it should be on how we handle these issues."
Needless to say, the statement - heavy on sentiment and light on practicality as it was - was met with criticism.
Sadly, Jones isn't alone: celebrities like Stephen Fry, Ryan Tubridy and Keira Knightley have left the platform, while Lena Dunham and Kanye West have what's euphemistically described as an on-off relationship with Twitter.
And really, it's not them; it's us. In a rather alarming statistic, it was revealed earlier this year that half of misogynistic abuse comes from female tweeters. WAM! (Woman Action & Media) found that while most abuse was hate speech (27pc of users), 22pc of users also were guilty of doxxing (releasing private information on others), threats of violence (12pc), libelous claims (9pc), impersonation (4pc) and revenge porn (3pc). As writer Jon Ronson outlined in his book 'So You've Been Publicly Shamed', Twitter went from a place of curiosity to a place where the hunt is on for shameful secrets. And it is affecting the site's popularity in real, tangible ways: data shows the number of tweets per day created by Twitter's users has fallen by more than half since a peak in August 2014 - though Twitter does deny these figures are correct.
Whatever about the psychological profiling of its users, Twitter appears to be locked in a fruitless battle against the trolls and abusers. Despite its valiant efforts, the abuse remains. Part of the problem is that the democratic, open nature of Twitter facilitates the spread of abuse. UK think-tank Demos notes that natural language-filtering algorithms are able to separate out tweets using these terms as obvious abuse, which should in theory make identifying hate speech much easier.
A 2014 study by Demos also found "approximately 10,000 uses per day of racist and ethnic slur terms", of which 500-2,000 were directed at individuals, during a nine-day period in November 2012.
"It's important to note that misogyny is prevalent across all social media, and we must make sure that the other big tech companies are also involved in discussions around education and developing solutions," said Demos researcher Alex Krasodomski-Jones in a recent statement.
"This is less about policing the internet than it is a stark reminder that we are frequently not as good citizens online as we are offline."
In 2014, Twitter added a feature ostensibly designed to help people report instances of abuse; the block and report function. Truth be told, it was something of a false dawn; some critics say that the function only compounded the problem. While the offending tweets are brought to the company's attention, the problem with reporting tweets is that this requires the victim to take lots of action if many accounts and tweets are involved.
In February this year, Twitter announced a "trust and safety council,", "a new and foundational part of our strategy to ensure that people feel safe expressing themselves on Twitter."
How do they do this? By working "with safety advocates, academics, and researchers; grassroots advocacy organisations that rely on Twitter to build movements; and community groups working to prevent abuse." The simple truth of the matter, however, is that they have waged a war they are losing.
For now, the fight against Twitter abuse it in its infancy and we've yet to find out just how bad the problem really is. Twitter, Google and Facebook refuse to publish information on the scale and type of reports they receive.
Yet as Jones' experience shows, the site isn't yet doing nearly enough to tackle its most insidious problem. Users can take a small stand: they can force accounts reported as abusive into "protected tweet" mode, so only their own followers (accepted by them) can see them.
2015 and 2016 saw the imprisonment of Twitter trolls, including a 21-year-old man who issued rape threats to Caroline Criado-Perez, while Chloe Cowan, a troll who taunted James Bulger's mother with abuse was jailed for three years in July. The law concerning Twitter is clear - if you make a defamatory allegation about someone you can be sued for libel. It is the same as publishing a false and damaging report in a newspaper.
Meantime, feminist Lindy West, who has encountered more than her own share of online abuse, advises Twitter users on how to handle the haters: "I deal with trolls a variety of ways - mainly blocking, but also mocking, or once in a while (if it seems like a misguided kid) trying to actually engage and get through. Basically, I do whatever feels best to me in that particular moment."
Tweetie-bye: Celebs who've quit
In February, Stephen Fry came under fire at the BAFTA Awards, after he referred to his friend Jenny Beavan as a 'bag lady'. He left the site a day later. "Too many people have peed in the pool," he noted later.
Adele - who has 25m followers - announced she was leaving Twitter in 2012 due to comments about her newborn son. She since returned, but revealed last year that she no longer sends her own messages due to "drunk tweeting".
In 2012, Kanye West quit the site by deleting all his tweets except for one announcing the release date of his 'Yeezus' album and the words: "Be Back Soon." Sure enough he was back, after a short break.
Ryan Tubridy closed down his Twitter account in 2011: "I think for ages there was a lovely bunch of people there, they're still there, but they've been joined by the bad guys," he was quoted as saying at the time. "I left it because I was spending too much time on it and I felt also I was just fueling my own ego and I just didn't need either: The waste of time or the further attention.
- Tanya Sweeney