Public outrage often follows a familiar pattern. Abuses are made known, tempers flare, and the vox populi coalesces into a simple rallying cry: We have to do something. What that something is, or how it could possibly backfire, is treated as an afterthought. In response to KONY 2012, we had to do something, but that something turned out to be sharing the video on Facebook, at least until the filmmaker was caught masturbating in public. In response to Syria, we had to do something, and now several al-Qaeda affiliates have access to an arsenal of American weapons.
Twitter is no stranger to this phenomenon of flailing, directionless outrage. For certain demographics, particularly those working in media or the tech sector, an ill-defined “harassment problem” makes the platform nearly unusable. Twitter’s Holy Grail is a solution to this problem, preferably a simple one, a Big Idea handed down from above. Whenever a new feature is added to the service, the response typically includes dozens of accusations of skewed priorities. When Twitter added a Moments tab, it was told to solve its harassment problem. When it gave users the ability to add stickers to photos, it was told to solve its harassment problem. When it added read receipts to direct messages, it was told to solve its harassment problem. When it folded Vine into Twitter’s built-in video function, it was told to solve its harassment problem.
What Twitter should actually do about harassment is often left up in the air. Much of the abuse endemic to Twitter is caused by its structure. Though it bills itself as a blogging platform, it has little in common with its antecedents. Blogspot and Wordpress lack top-down moderation, instead delegating this responsibility to individual users, who run their blogs as they would their own personal websites. In this way, early blogs were more akin to the free homepages handed out in the late 1990s by GeoCities and Angelfire — centrally hosted but autonomous and subject to limitless customization. In contrast, Twitter gives users minimal control over their experiences and forces them to interact with others as they would on a message board. This, not the 140-character limit, is what drew in users. Twitter is essentially a massive, worldwide forum, a format that trades user control and atomization for ease in connecting with others.
What Twitter should actually do about harassment is often left up in the air.
It’s important to note that many complaints about the abusive environment are actually indictments of Twitter as a platform, and also that most news coverage of Twitter fails to address how few people actually use the service with any regularity. Regardless, in our modern, hyperconnected age, public figures are expected to be on Twitter, even if just to prevent ne’er-do-wells from impersonating them. These officials are seldom interested in the community aspect, instead preferring to post mundane updates and announcements. If they do opt to network with others, they limit their interaction to conversations with other public figures. In either case, the ability of non-verified, non-famous users to mock or disagree with their posts is a constant source of frustration. The ability to protect one’s account has always existed, but few deem this a sufficient solution to Twitter’s endemic woes. Such complaints about the basic structure of Twitter are difficult or impossible for the administrators to address without altering the core essence of the user experience.
Despite the laughable nature of some complaints, there is actual harassment on Twitter, and the most severe instances should be actionable by the site’s administration. Users are subjected to doxxing and all sorts of racist and sexist abuse, almost always by nameless, faceless far-right trolls affiliated with chan sites. Offsite trolling campaigns, or invasions, have long been a hallmark of chan culture. In 2006, 4chan users schemed to overrun the teen-oriented chat site Habbo Hotel with swastikas and shock humor, a strategy that remains virtually unchanged more than a decade later. Despite the use of Nazi imagery in their attacks, the trolls of the 2000s were seldom on the far right politically. Targets were often conservative Christians like the founder of the No Cussing Club or the anti-video-game activist Jack Thompson. As nerd culture shifted further to the right in the last decade, the focus shifted to “social justice warriors,” feminists, and, eventually, anyone opposed to Donald Trump. These right-wing mobs first received mainstream attention in 2014 when they conspired on 4chan, 8chan, and Reddit to harass feminist game developers in response to a perceived culture shift in a strange movement that has come to be known as “Gamergate.” Increasingly, these excursions achieved a degree of mainstream acceptability, with right-wing outlets like Breitbart and Heat Street portraying them sympathetically and acting as de facto leaders of a what was a previously decentralized campaign.
For its part, Twitter has sent mixed signals on the mainstreaming of organized harassment. Now-disgraced alt-right provocateur and pedophile sympathizer Milo Yiannopoulos had his account permanently suspended in July 2016 after initiating an onslaught of racial invective directed at Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones. In October 2016, pseudonymous white nationalist Ricky Vaughn was also suspended to quell outrage over a fake campaign ad suggesting Democrats were able to vote by text message. This crackdown on noxious alt-right figures prompted an exodus to the fledgling alternative platform Gab, which has gained tens of thousands of users in recent months.
In November 2016, Twitter suspended the account of white nationalist Richard Spencer only to change course and reinstate it less than a month later with little explanation. This decision made little sense — the mainstream media figures and Silicon Valley investors who keep Twitter culturally relevant and financially solvent were not clamoring for Spencer’s return; no one but his Pepe-avatar fanbase, a group that deals in doxxing and vulgar racism, wanted him back. It is true that Spencer keeps his hate speech relatively toned down in order to cast himself as a rational expositor of ideas and not a proponent of violent ethnic cleansing, so technically, he may have not violated Twitter’s rules about inciting harassment. But his mere presence on the platform provides a major draw for the chan-board dregs that hurl slur-laden abuse at people from marginalized groups. Just two days ago, Twitter repeated this mistake by suspending former KKK Grand Wizard and failed Senate candidate David Duke after he called for synagogues to be “SHUT DOWN” amidst a nationwide streak of anti-Semitic threats. This lasted less than a day before his account was reinstated. The Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization devoted to tracking hate groups, criticized Twitter for this move. In fact, the only people pleased with the decision seemed to be Duke and his white supremacist fanbase.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was shielded from the brutal invective of user “fartbutt69.”
Instead of eliminating the self-appointed leaders of hate movements, Twitter’s newest policy, rolled out in mid-February, has been to hand out 12-hour bans to anyone caught being even the slightest bit rude. The identities of the victim or perpetrator are irrelevant, as are the content or context of the offending tweets, presumably a result of laziness on the part of the moderators. These bans seem to have fallen disproportionately upon users outside of the Pepe brigade; the ostensible victims of this conduct are often powerful politicians and media figures whose accounts are run by interns. For example, because of this policy, Twitter protected Mike Pence from the indignity of being told “fuck you” by a transgender woman. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was shielded from the brutal invective of user “fartbutt69” — he called her “really dumb.” The targets of rudeness don’t have to be powerful figures, either; telling fascists to fuck themselves is an actionable offense. Actually being a fascist is okay with the Twitter administration, so long as they keep their hate speech G-rated. Twitter was asked to just do something, anything, so it did.
Such a policy could only be the result of incredible cowardice on the part of Twitter. Its primary goal is to appear fair and unbiased, a tall order in an increasingly polarized culture. Even though Iraq War ghoul David Frum says otherwise, cutting off the head of the beast is a worthwhile way to reduce the behavior triggering nonstop complaints of harassment. Clumsy attempts to punish users for violating 19th-century rules of etiquette may appease investors for a few weeks, but in the long term, it accomplishes nothing. When you remove Milo Yiannopoulos, his fans migrate elsewhere in hot pursuit. The same applies to Richard Spencer, to the troglodytes behind Pizzagate, to rape apologists like Mike Cernovich, and — this is a long shot — to Donald Trump himself, the center of the alt-right solar system. It would make fascists apoplectic, but it would also make them leave.
Alex Nichols is the social media editor at Current Affairs.