Twitter moves to curb abusive comments

By Larry Magid

This column first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News -- the newspaper of Silicon Valley

This column first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News — the newspaper of Silicon Valley

As you may have heard, Twitter recently expelled Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, who received a notice that his account has been “permanently suspended for repeated violation of the Twitter rules, specifically our rules prohibiting participating in or inciting targeted abuse of individuals.”

The notice went on to say that since Yiannopoulos has “previously received repeated warnings for similar violations, your account will not be restored.”

Yiannopoulos reportedly incited his followers to send a torrent of racist, sexist and otherwise abusive tweets to “Ghostbusters” star Leslie Jones. For reasons I can only imagine, some people are offended by the “political correctness” of the new movie because it features female leads as ghost fighters. Jones, who is African American, has been subjected to all sorts of online abuse.

Yiannopoulos, who had 338,000 Twitter followers before his expulsion, is a well-known provocateur, using his platform to incite harassment against minorities, women and others who he and his followers consider to be “politically correct.” To me, this incident brings up two important issues — the role of Twitter and other social media companies to police member conduct, and the apparent rise in rude, abusive and mean online speech.

Diverse opinions welcome on Twitter

In a statement, Twitter said that “people should be able to express diverse opinions and beliefs on Twitter, but no one deserves to be subjected to targeted abuse online.” The company said that its “rules prohibit inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others.”

As quoted on, Yiannopoulos called Twitter’s move “cowardly,” and claimed that “Twitter has confirmed itself as a safe space for Muslim terrorists and Black Lives Matter extremists, but a no-go zone for conservatives.” It should be noted that there are many conservatives on Twitter who regularly use the platform to promote their causes, candidacies and ideologies.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz has 1.37 million Twitter followers, the NRA has posted more than 10,000 tweets and Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump, who Yiannopoulos supports, has posted more than 32,000 times. Trump made history by using Twitter to announce his (conservative) running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence. If the next president were determined by Twitter followers rather than voters, @RealDonaldTrump would trounce @HillaryClinton by 10 million to 7.57 million followers.

Evolving abuse policies

Twitter, whose former CEO once described the company as “the free speech wing of the free speech party,” has become far less tolerant of abusive speech after numerous well publicized complaints by celebrities, gamers, social activists and others. Although men — including white men such as yours truly — have been targets of abuse, some of the most publicized cases are women, including Zelda Williams, who left Twitter when she received abusive comments after the death of her father Robin Williams. Even Downton Abbey star Lily James reportedly quit Twitter after being harassed by fans who didn’t like the show’s storyline.

Video game developer Zoë Quinn had been a victim of massive online harassment on Twitter and other platforms stemming from accusations from an ex-partner. The harassment campaign eventually got its own hashtag: “Gamergate,” which caused many to confront the issues of sexism and harassment. Quinn later started Crash Override, a crisis helpline for online abuse victims. Her organization, along with more than 40 others, was appointed early this year to Twitter’s new Trust and Safety Council., where I serve as CEO, is also on that council.

As a member of that Trust and Safety Council, I can testify that Twitter is taking abuse and harassment seriously and that it is struggling with how to quash trolls who harass others while protecting its users’ free speech rights. To some, the line between free expression and abuse may seem obvious but, to me and many who struggle with these issues, it’s not always clear.

Facebook, which has its own safety advisory board that I’m on, struggles with issues like whether it’s appropriate to allow people to post images and videos of horrific acts of terrorism and abuse. In some case they are taken down because they are being posted as propaganda or to glorify the act, but in other cases they are allowed because they are posted by people or groups trying to bring attention to combat the atrocities.

Of course, companies like Facebook and Twitter have financial considerations but it’s not correct to assume that they encourage abuse simply to avoid losing those members who engage in it or enjoy viewing it. There are infinitely more people who find these attacks appalling and — from a business perspective — it makes a lot more sense to appeal to the hundreds of millions of users looking for a respectful place to interact and engage in spirited yet civil debates vs. those relatively small numbers of people who like to ridicule and harass.

Having said that, I do worry about what appears to be a growing number of abusive comments on social media. I can’t prove the case, but — based on what I’m hearing — it does feel as if an increasing number of people feel that going online gives them a license to be cruel or at least crass. It’s evident in online political comments and even in tech blogs. Even when mean speech doesn’t violate the company’s terms of service (few
companies ban all unpleasant speech) it can be hurtful.

Things you can do

There are no surefire solutions, but almost all services have abuse reporting tools, which you should use if you feel someone might be violating their rules.

Beyond that, you have the ability to block people who you don’t want to hear from and, on some services, configure your privacy settings to prevent them from seeing what you post. And all of us can stand up for those who are abused by drowning out negative speech with positive counter speech and doing all we to be positive role models.