Opinion | After prolonged inaction against abuse, its time to hold Twitter accountable

By Kartik Kannan, Staff Columnist

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is keenly aware of the issues with abuse on his social media platform. When interviewed by Recode co-founder Kara Swisher, Dorsey gave his social media platform a “C” when it came to “tech responsibility,” adding that his company was not doing enough to combat online abuse.

That interview and Dorsey’s self-assessment occurred two years ago. If he was to be assessed again now, he would unequivocally earn an “F.”

It’s no secret that Twitter has struggled to enforce its own community regulations. This was clearly evidenced by the actions of former President Donald Trump, who used the platform to abuse those he did not like, spread politically motivated misinformation and incite hatred and violence. But abuse on Twitter goes far beyond Trump’s tweets, as abusive behavior has been, and continues to be, present on the platform before and after Trump made his presence felt.

Typically, the public is only broadly exposed to online harassment on the platform when it occurs to high-profile celebrities. Recently, New York Mets owner Steve Cohen left Twitter after being subjected to threats related to his involvement with hedge funds trying to recover money lost to traders “shorting” GameStop stocks. Additionally, in the United Kingdom, multiple Premier League soccer players fell victim to racial abuse on the platform.

But abuse on Twitter is not limited to celebrities — in fact, out of all Twitter users, women and people of color have faced an ever-increasing amount of harassment. A study conducted by Amnesty International and Troll Patrol found that a woman receives a problematic or abusive tweet every 30 seconds and that women of color were 34% more likely to receive abusive tweets.

It is not as if Twitter does not know it has a problem combating abuse — one can go back as far as 2015 to see former company CEO Dick Costolo admit as much in a set of internal messages. Costolo went as far as taking personal responsibility for the company’s failure to handle abusers on Twitter, stating that in the future Twitter would be “kicking these people off right and left and making sure that when they issue their ridiculous attacks, no one hears them.” And during Dorsey’s aforementioned interview with Swisher four years later, Dorsey also readily admitted that while Twitter has made some progress toward improving conditions for users, his company’s actions had resulted in the responsibility of handling online abuse being forced upon the victims themselves.

Yet two years after that interview, and six years after Costolo’s memorandums were leaked, there are still Twitter users who are forced to deal with vile abuse. This, therefore, begs an important question — if the CEOs of a major social platform have acknowledged that there is a problem with abuse on said platform and also know that they are not doing enough to solve the problem, why are users still subjected to such abominable treatment?

The answer likely lies in a global failure to hold Twitter accountable for its inaction. Ever since it was founded in 2006, Twitter has been able to skirt extensive reformative action through empty promises to bring about change. These promises do not necessarily need to be fulfilled because of legal provisions worldwide, such as the United States’s “safe harbor” clause in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which allows Twitter to take no liability for speech published on its platform.

Without having to be responsible for its users’ content, Twitter can get away with such vices as forcing celebrities like Leslie Jones to have to defend themselves from repeated abuse by other users before deciding to intervene, allowing known abusers to remain on the platform and not setting up enough local language support in foreign nations where online harassment is commonplace.

But perhaps the greatest problem on Twitter that resulted from a global lack of accountability is the inconsistency in the platform’s decision making on what constitutes abuse. When Sunder Katwala, director of the thinktank British Future — hailing from Indian and Irish descent — attempted to post a positive report on race in 2019, he received racially abusive tweets from at least 50 active users. Only a third of the users he reported were deemed to have violated the platform’s rules on abuse. And he is not alone — countless examples can be found online of tweets that seemingly constitute harassment but were not taken down or flagged by Twitter as abusive.

Twitter has been around for nearly 15 years and has claimed time and time again to be working on new technology to purge harassment from its platform, but with no tangible change to show, it is more than fair to say that Twitter’s inaction has not just allowed abuse to occur — it has encouraged it to grow. After years of global failure to handle Twitter’s inaction against online abusers, it’s time to force Dorsey, his board and the entire platform to truly make substantial changes to how it handles abuse.

There are a variety of actions Twitter can take to solve the issue of abuse. The site could increase the thoroughness of its registration process, requiring users to include their IP address and both a verifiable phone number and email when signing up to keep abusers from using fake or repeated information to create more abusive accounts. The platform could use this information as leverage against users in lawsuits, with terms of service being rewritten to allow law enforcement to immediately handle abusive users whose language constitutes a criminal action like a hate crime or sexual harassment.

But one of the most definitive actions that Twitter could take — as British MP Margaret Hodge, a victim of abuse herself, has suggested — is completely removing anonymity on Twitter. Many abusive users are able to get away with the vile harassment of other users simply because their words cannot be traced back to them. By enhancing verification policies and connecting all active accounts to real people’s phone numbers and emails, the threat of being publicly outed as an abuser would do wonders toward eradicating harassment on Twitter. And while the platform has allowed many users who do not post abuse to thrive privately, the harm being done by scores of abusive users outweighs any good anonymity on Twitter could do.

Until any action occurs, though, our global society has a responsibility to ensure every person behind Twitter is held accountable for allowing 15 years of abuse to fester. Governmental sanctions could place pressure on Twitter’s executives through an idea proposed by British Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden. The laws that protect Twitter from being held liable for its users’ posts, such as the “safe harbor” clause, should either be amended or repealed altogether, and we need to pressure our lawmakers to ensure that they carry out the legislative work necessary to force Twitter to create tangible change. And on an individual level, each and every one of us can resolve to boycott Twitter and its partners until Twitter enacts reforms that actively end abuse on its platform.

In an increasingly progressive world, it is inexplicable that a major social media platform can let abusive behavior run rampant. If Twitter will not take responsibility for its actions, then it is on us to ensure that the platform is no longer a place for hate. While it will always be impossible to eradicate abuse from our society, our actions now can shape a world in which abuse is never again allowed to come to the fore of society.

Kartik Kannan is a first-year studying biological sciences. You can contact Kartik at [email protected].