Twitter champions freedom of speech and allows its users anonymity, but that hands-off approach comes at a cost: Many users, especially women, face constant abuse on the network. One high-profile incident might finally spur Twitter to action.
In the wake of beloved comedian and actor Robin Williams's death earlier this week, his daughter Zelda Williams took to Twitter to share in the outpouring of grief. But the 25-year-old actress didn't expect bullies to start tweeting doctored images of her father's body and tagging her so they would be unavoidable. Williams asked her followers to help her report the attackers, because Twitter's abuse reporting policies require links. Williams would've been forced to look at the offending tweets again and again. Instead, she quit Twitter altogether.
"We have suspended a number of accounts related to this issue for violating our rules and we are in the process of evaluating how we can further improve our policies to better handle tragic situations like this one," Twitter Trust and Safety Team head Del Harvey told the Associated Press. "This includes expanding our policies regarding self-harm and private information, and improving support for family members of deceased users."
Twitter hasn't specified how exactly it plans to change its abuse-reporting policies.
The network has long been criticized for its slow response to reports of abuse. It took years for Twitter to streamline its threat-reporting process, but the network finally added an in-tweet abuse button last summer after several British women faced bombing and rape threats.
But that abuse button doesn't fix anything. Anonymous Twitter bullies can create new accounts to harass people from, and if they delete their tweets, it's impossible to convince Twitter to take action. So rather than wait around for Twitter to take harassment seriously, developers have created tools like Block Together and the Block Bot to help targets avoid seeing their attackers. The new trend, called "collaborative blocking," has helped some high-profile targets, Glenn Fleishman reported on BoingBoing this week.
But the fact that third-party tools or quitting the network are the only ways for women, specifically, to feel safe on Twitter is problematic, to say the least. I'm not sure how Twitter plans to change its approach to abuse, but having more humans behind the scenes reacting swiftly to threat reports would be a start. Harassment has been a problem on Twitter for years. It's unfortunate that it took Robin Williams's untimely death to prod the network to action.