From the Desk of Bailey Poland: Holding Twitter to a Higher Standard

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PolandThe following contribution is from Bailey Poland, author of Haters: Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online (November 2016). 

After far too long, Twitter finally pulled the plug on Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos’ Twitter account, where he went by @Nero. Amid the well-deserved schadenfreude over Yiannopoulos first losing his verified checkmark—and eventually his entire account—it’s worthwhile to  step back and assess what really happened, and the cost required to get us here.

Yiannopoulos made his mark on Twitter by aligning himself with the worst examples of online abuse. He went from referring to gamers as “pungent beta male bollock-scratchers” to being a champion and figurehead of Gamergate. As their “Based Journalist” (despite his own spotty history with journalistic ethics), and as a self-styled provocateur, he participated in, encouraged, and orchestrated numerous campaigns of harassment and abuse over a period of years. While his time on Twitter may be over, the extent of the damage he has done is immense. Why did it take Twitter so long to get this right?

As writers and activists like Mikki Kendall, Sydette Harry, and many others have pointed out, abusers like Yiannopoulos and his crew of furious hangers-on have consistently gone after Twitter’s most vulnerable and least-supported population: black women. Women in tech, queer women, disabled women, and women in general are at risk on Twitter, and Twitter has a long history of failure when it comes to protecting these until the media pressure is too great to ignore.

Twitter, like most companies, runs on dollar signs. Sexist and racist abuse generates activity, which generates money. Until abuse costs Twitter money, they’re content to leave the status quo alone.

With Yiannopoulos, it took overstepping Twitter’s terms of service repeatedly and landing the site in the middle of yet another media firestorm before facing consequences for his actions. As a result of Twitter’s failure to permanently suspend his account any of the previous times he violated their TOS, Ghostbusters star and comedian Leslie Jones has abandoned her Twitter account. Jones endured a day of publicly recounting the abusive misogynoir she was sent from thousands of accounts—at Yiannopoulos’ encouragement—and she’s not the only one who has landed in the crosshairs of the Internet hate machine.

What does it say about the future of Twitter as a platform if the only way to get abuse taken seriously is to be able to contact Jack Dorsey directly, or to be a celebrity? What does that mean for women who don’t have Jones’ celebrity to ensure they are heard? What does it mean that even a woman as famous and well-liked as Jones still waited a full day before anything happened?

Whenever I describe Twitter’s ongoing failures to deal with abuse, I am met with a litany of excuses, ranging from the size of Twitter’s staff to blaming the nature of the Internet, as though abuse is a bad weather pattern. My personal favorite is that Yiannopoulos is a victim of “censorship.” Losing one’s account on a website after continually violating their TOS is a consequence of individual behavior, not an abrogation of free speech rights. The frequency with which I hear this paper-thin argument indicates just how indefensible the actions being defended really are.

Twitter itself, however, has no excuse to offer—not even a thin one. In its belated press release on the abuse Jones suffered, Twitter offered the following: “We rely on people to report this type of behavior to us but we are continuing to invest heavily in improving our tools and enforcement systems to prevent this kind of abuse. We realize we still have a lot of work in front of us before Twitter is where it should be on how we handle these issues.”

Twitter has repeatedly been presented with—and acknowledged—simple fixes it could apply to reduce the prevalence of abuse on the platform. Women, Action, and the Media conducted a research study on abuse occurring on Twitter, making numerous suggestions for improvement. Despite this, dealing with abuse on the site feels like running in place.

Yiannopoulos losing his account is a step in the right direction, but it’s coming too late in the game to look like anything more than a desperate PR move. Removing one ringleader simply creates a vacuum that allows another to take his place. Until Twitter begins to address the systemic issues underlying online abuse, women, people of color, and other marginalized groups will not see real change. Even as we congratulate Twitter for finally doing the right thing in this instance, we must continue to pressure the website to make user safety a priority.

You can read her post about the Just Sports #MoreThanMean campaign here.