On Twitter, hate speech bounded only by a character limit

Although Twitter warns users that they may not "threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender" and various other traits, it often fumbles the enforcement.
Although Twitter warns users that they may not "threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender" and various other traits, it often fumbles the enforcement.PHOTO: REUTERS

The venom from pseudonymous accounts poisons a once-laudable free speech platform

If you go by what some Twitter users have to say, it's a wonder I can string together a sentence. I don't know how I ever manage to get myself to the office, given what a "dumb ass" I am - a Jew, no less, and someone who soils his pants out of fear of a Trump presidency. And if you don't believe that last bit, someone using a pseudonymous Twitter account was kind enough to provide a graphic photo of the supposed soiling, but not his or her real name, because it's just so much easier to hurl bile while cowering behind anonymity.

Then again, I don't know what it's like to be really savaged by Twitter. No one has threatened to rape me or kill me (unless being advised to kill myself counts). No one has relegated me to a gas chamber. And no one has hit me with anything like the sustained racist and sexist barrage that forced the Saturday Night Live and Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones to temporarily leave Twitter in disgust.

Now that Twitter is contemplating putting itself up for sale, we can only wonder what lucky suitor is going to walk away with such a charming catch.

Twitter is seeking a buyer at a time of slowing subscriber growth (it hovers above the 300 million mark) and "decreasing user engagement", as Oppenheimer & Co's Internet research head Jason Helfstein put it when he downgraded the stock in a report last week.

There's a host of possible reasons for this, including new rivals, failure to adapt to fast-changing media habits and an "open mike" quality that some potential users may find intimidating.

But you have to wonder whether the cap on Twitter's growth is tied more to that most basic - and base - of human emotions: hatred.

Soon after Twitter took its place in the tech-driven media revolution a decade ago, it proved to be a forceful amplifier of ideas and personalities, one that could be a political game changer.

It courses through Twitter at an alarming rate, turbocharged by this year's political campaigns in the United States and the rise of anti-immigration movements that dabble in racist, sexist and anti-Semitic tropes across the globe. And this is to say nothing of its use by terrorist recruiters.

It's a lamentable turn that Twitter says it is urgently working to address.

Soon after Twitter took its place in the tech-driven media revolution a decade ago, it proved to be a forceful amplifier of ideas and personalities, one that could be a political game changer. Its role in enabling the Arab Spring movements remains inspirational. It helped foster bottom-up movements like the Tea Party and Black Lives Matter in the US. And, of course, it helped make possible the outsider candidacy of Mr Donald Trump, who still uses it, er, aggressively.

The back-and-forth over his candidacy and the news media's coverage of it have added a new cache of material to the uglier side of Twitter's oeuvre.

More often than not, the venom comes from pseudonymous accounts - the white hoods of our time.

Just take a gander at @Bridget62945958, who published a series of anti-Semitic posts against my colleague Binyamin Appelbaum. One message showed a series of lampshades. Its caption read: "This is your family when Trump wins. Get your Israeli passport ready."

Twitter suspended the account after Mr Appelbaum brought it to the attention of Twitter's co-founder and chief executive Jack Dorsey, by way of his own Twitter feed.

A new account sprang right up to continue the vitriol, prompting Mr Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, to write a post asking Mr Dorsey: "How does it feel to watch Twitter turning into an anti-Semitic cesspool?"

Mr Goldberg is torn about what Twitter should do, given that its cause - openness and free speech - is a reason he and so many other journalists are drawn to use it.

"That's the fundamental problem," he told me. "At a certain point I'd rather take myself off the platform where the speech has become so offensive than advocate for the suppression of that speech."

Twitter clearly wrestles with the same fundamental problem. It warns users they may not "threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender" and various other traits. Yet it often fumbles the enforcement.

Mr Charlie Warzel of BuzzFeed News unearthed a doozy recently. After a user who identified herself as Kathleen posted a tweet criticising the Trump campaign, a Twitter member going by Adorable Deplorable directed a message back at her featuring a photograph of a beheaded man - apparently an ISIS victim - and the words, "Your (sic) heading for a deep hole."

Twitter forced the photo's removal after BuzzFeed's inquiries, but it initially told Kathleen that the post did not violate its policies. This is apparently common. In a BuzzFeed survey of Twitter users, about 90 per cent of those who said they had reported abuse said their complaints went unheeded.

So-called trolls are a problem for all social media - even Facebook, which keeps a tidier, more contained system. (To wit, the Facebook message a New Jersey politician wrote to Daily Beast writer Olivia Nuzzi after she posted something about Mr Trump that he did not like: "Hope. You. Get. Raped. By. A. Syrian. Refugee.")

But the openness of Twitter, and the sheer speed and volume of information moving through it, present a particularly hard challenge that its executives say they are rushing to meet.

"Everyone on Twitter should feel safe expressing diverse opinions and beliefs," the company says in a statement it sent me. "But behaviour that harasses, intimidates or uses fear to silence another person's voice should have no place on our platform." In a letter to shareholders, Mr Dorsey says Twitter is putting in place technology enabling it to more readily detect abusive accounts, make it easier for users to report them and even prevent them.

It's all a bit tricky for a company founded with an absolutist ethos, once calling itself "the free speech wing of the free speech party". Some of its moves to curtail abuse have drawn accusations that it is applying a double standard aimed at conservatives.

After Twitter placed Breitbart news editor Milo Yiannopoulos on permanent suspension for his role in the Twitter campaign against Ms Jones, he accused it of declaring "war on free speech", specifically against "libertarians, conservatives and anyone who loves mischief".

Another banned Twitter provocateur, Charles C. Johnson - whom my predecessor David Carr once called a "troll on steroids" - is planning a lawsuit to fight his suspension. In an interview, he said he respected Twitter's right to ban patently offensive speech but argued that it needed to set a consistent, uniformly applied standard. Still, he said, "the problem of trolls" might be unsolvable.

"It might just be a human nature problem. Maybe we don't like each other that much - and that's what Twitter has revealed," he added.

We didn't need Twitter to reveal that. And in the previous two media revolutions - radio and television - the US managed to strike some sort of accommodation between the right to free speech and the greater civic good.

That happened because there was an immediate national recognition that these media could have tremendous power to shape culture, politics and government for good and for ill.

As Herbert Hoover moved to establish basic standards for radio, he acknowledged that it had "great possibilities of future influence" but was also of "potential public concern". He declared radio should be developed with public interest in mind, an idea that carried over to television.

What followed were standards that forced broadcasters to devote at least some of their hours to civic affairs while avoiding obscene and "grossly offensive" content. At times, the efforts have wandered dangerously into censorship. But at least there was a big national discussion about what should beam into American living rooms.

There was no similarly robust discussion at the start of this, the latest media revolution, and the hope is that the political mistrust isn't so great that we can't have a constructive one now.

Each new media development has served as a mirror for the society that spawned it. It sure seems time for a good, hard look.

But what does this dumb, pants- soiling Jew know?

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 09, 2016, with the headline 'On Twitter, hate speech bounded only by a character limit'. Print Edition | Subscribe