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Debate: Should Twitter do more to protect its users from trolls?

While calling out abusive trolls, author and feminist Lindy West said the real reason she’s leaving Twitter is because Twitter itself refused to do anything substantial to protect its users.

Caitriona O'Neill and William Gallagher

Lindy West announced her departure from Twitter in a Guardian column this week, writing, “It is unusable for anyone but trolls, robots and dictators.” But West’s breaking point wasn’t the actual online bullies, it was Twitter’s refusal to stop them.

The white supremacist, anti-feminist, isolationist, transphobic ‘alt-right’ movement has been beta-testing its propaganda and intimidation machine on marginalised Twitter communities for years now – how much hate speech will bystanders ignore? When will Twitter intervene and start protecting its users?” she wrote.

But should Twitter do more to censor abuse on the platform? We ask two commentators to tell us their views.

YES. Tara Flynn is an actress, comedian and writer

I joined Twitter back in 2009. It was all fields then; pastures full of hope, jokes grazing happily beside streams of information and potential.

I got to read stuff I mightn’t have stumbled across otherwise. I got to interact with people I might not have met under ordinary circumstances and established friendships that spilled into real life. It was fun.

Even in those early days, I had guidelines. No Twitter “debates”: the 140 character limit and public nature of it meant any nuance got lost. Pointless. And trolls? I mainly ignored trolls. For one thing, my follower count was low so I wasn’t getting many. I’d just block.

I used to reason that if you opened a door to even the most beautiful view a few slugs could get in. A few slugs were worth a great view, right? But what if the owner of the garden decided not to keep on top of the slugs? What if, when you opened the door, the view was obscured by the slimy feckers? That’s kind of how Twitter seems right now.

This week, Lindy West, one of my favourite troll-slayers, left Twitter. I hope she’ll be back, but I understand why she left. A comedy writer and feminist, founder of the #shoutyourabortion tag, and someone who stands up to fascism, she has been trolled unmercifully for years. In her excellent book Shrill, she recounts meeting the man who set up an account as her dead dad. It’s as enlightening as it is shocking.

West was expert at what she called “feeding the trolls til they explode”. When you are deluged with abuse (if you’re a woman, person of colour, or have a high follower count, you’re far more likely to be) you can’t just ignore it.

You block; they set up new accounts. Don’t engage? Silencing. It keeps coming. Quietly taking punches alone wears you down. So, I’ve decided to take a leaf out of her book.

I recently left Twitter for a few weeks. People said “That’s letting them win!” But leaving felt like power to me. You could pre-script a lot of the abuse – bless them, they’re pretty repetitive – and why stay where the banter’s boring?

But I missed my Twitter pals. I came back. I’m still assessing whether fun outweighs slugs but this time, without reservation, I share abuse. I shame, reply, ignore – whatever I feel like doing in the moment someone tweets it at me.

“Don’t give them oxygen. Block and report.” The people who say this mean well, but are never in the demographic for repeated, personal, gendered or racist abuse. They don’t understand. They’ve not sent numerous reports to Twitter, for what is clearly threatening language, and got the stock “this does not violate our terms” reply. You’re on your own, kid.

It seems there are no repercussions from the platform, no one reading the reports, unless they make the press. They say they’re making progress in tackling abuse and that may be your experience, but based on my own, I’m not convinced regular users matter to Twitter – especially now they’re set to be a presidential mouthpiece. Though, frankly, it almost seems unfair to single Twitter out when mainstream outlets are currently platforming “hilarious” racism and misogyny.

Basically, if your beloved local starts holding Hitler Youth meetings and Grab Women By The Pussy nights, you’re entitled to ask them not to. If they still want to hold them, fine. But they better know you’re looking for another pub. There are always pastures new.

NO. Lorraine Courtney is a journalist and very reluctant Tweeter.


Sadly it’s kind of inevitable that when you create something like Twitter, however good your intentions, there are going to be some sad little people out there ready to subvert your good intentions and find a way to throw a spanner in the works.

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This doesn’t mean that we should blame the platforms themselves necessarily. On a smaller scale, it’s just an every day proof that there is a lot of bad people lurking in our world. I wish there wasn’t but then I turn on the news and see their actions.

Lots of people, even those on the far left, would argue that even hateful speech deserves the opportunity to have a platform when others have the choice not to listen. Although Twitter’s definition of what constitutes one user’s abuse of another on its service is famously airy fairy, and its crude block and mute tools still put the onus on individuals to ensure their own experience, us users do generally have some control over what we are exposed to.

I know Twitter has a trolling problem, but apart from making humans not nasty, or altering the privacy settings on Twitter and removing the heart of what makes it unique and useful, it’s hard to know how to fight it.

Ultimately all of these sites have their dark sides, because they reflect the kind of people we are. Self-obsessed, cynical, restless. Occasionally brilliant and occasionally evil. You see it’s like Andy Warhol’s prediction coming true and now everyone can have a self-important opinion for 15 minutes.

I’m a journalist. I’m published online and people call me out on stuff all the time. Sometimes it’s deliberately hurtful; sometimes it makes sense. Occasionally it even changes my mind.

But Twitter, just like the Internet itself, can never and should never be policed in any meaningful way. Social media reveals to us base impulses, impulses that are sometimes ugly and aggressive. But unfortunately it’s only channeling what is already out there in the real world.

What do you think? Is Twitter too soft on online bullies and trolls? Let us know what you think in the comments below.


About the author:

Caitriona O'Neill and William Gallagher

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