Twitter and Abuse: Some Users Are More Equal Than Others

After all we’ve read in the last few months about Twitter’s disinclination to solve the problem of people using the platform to anonymously abuse other users, hey, suddenly Twitter’s taking the problem seriously! In the wake of the godawful abuse aimed at Robin Williams’ daughter Zelda in the wake of his suicide, Twitter is apparently “evaluating how we can further improve our policies to better handle tragic situations like this one.” This is welcome news, of course. It’s just a shame that it took so damn long.

As Amanda Hess at Slate pointed out yesterday, “It’s a little depressing that it took a user of [Williams’] stature being harassed — and speaking up about it — in the context of an extraordinarily high-profile event to move Twitter to make a public statement about its responsibilities toward harassed and abused users.” Indeed. But it’s not surprising it’s taken an incident involving a celebrity (or, in this case, the daughter of a celebrity) for Twitter to suddenly take an interest in preventing online abuse.

Because of its ubiquity these days, it’s easy to forget that celebrities are Twitter’s lifeblood — the site provides unprecedented access to famous people and an unprecedented way for them to communicate directly with the public, for better or worse. (Or, as the Guardian put it a couple of years ago, “It’s both a voyeuristic window into the gilded idiocy of celebrity and a spotlight on suffering that would otherwise go unrecorded.”) As such, it needs to keep those celebrities happy.

It’s hard not to be cynical about this — you imagine that if, say, Justin Bieber or Katy Perry started stamping their feet about not liking people saying nasty things to them on Twitter, the company would get its ass into gear to change things very quickly indeed. You or me — or any number of female writers, or a bunch of unfortunate girls whose naked photos were circulated widely because Twitter users decided it was perfectly OK to do so — don’t seem to inspire any response at all.

Twitter’s mission statement is “to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.” It all sounds very egalitarian and utopian, but the thing is that facing a constant barrage of abuse from anonymous dickheads is most definitely a barrier. As ever in America, some people are more equal than others — if you’ve got the little blue tick next to your name and you’re facing such a “barrier,” Twitter will bend over backwards to remove it. They’ll also apparently violate their own policies, because as per the form email you get when you try to report harassment that concerns another person, “The Twitter Trust & Safety Team only reviews harassment reports when you are directly involved or you are legally authorized to report on behalf of a person being abused or harassed” — in other words, accepting reports from Williams’ followers isn’t something they would do for you or me. Trust me. I’ve tried to report abuse of friends and gotten nowhere.

All of which is to say, that for all its promises to give everyone a voice and all its proven utility in providing information (especially in cases where the traditional news media proves unsuitable for the job), Twitter still operates as a two-tier system. If you’re a “key individual [or] brand on Twitter,” you get a fancy timeline and special filters. If not, though — if you’re one of the rest of us — you get to deal with assholes all on your own.