Twitter expands safety team to better monitor harassment online

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Twitter has tripled the number of staff members working on safety issues and rolled out new systems to track harassment and abusive behavior on the social network. Among the new features will be a method to verify the identity of users, as well as a mechanism for reporting accounts that “dox,” or share, a target’s personal information, such as a home address, online.

“These new actions will not be visible to the vast majority of rule-abiding Twitter users – but they give us new options for acting against the accounts that don’t follow the rules and serve to discourage behavior that goes against our policies,” Tina Bhatnagar, Twitter’s vice president of user services wrote in a blog post Thursday. Bhatnagar wrote that the changes have enabled the team to process five times the number of reports as it did previously.

The announcement comes a few weeks after chief executive Dick Costolo acknowledged responsibility for the rampant harassment that the social network hosted. “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years,” Costolo wrote in an internal memo posted in the employees-only forums, later published by The Verge.

The story that provoked this response was Lindy West’s, a feminist writer and blogger who encountered both garden variety abuse as well as a more pernicious account that took on the persona of her dead father to send her cruel messages.

In a follow-up note, Costolo wrote: “I’m frankly ashamed of how poorly we’ve dealt with this issue during my tenure as CEO. It’s absurd. There’s no excuse for it. I take full responsibility for not being more aggressive on this front. It’s nobody else’s fault but mine, and it’s embarrassing.”

Though Twitter has had a Safety Team in place since 2008 to monitor behavior on the platform, it has recently been ramping up efforts in this area. Among the initiatives Twitter launched in the last year was a partnership with the Cambridge-based group, Women, Action & the Media, to gather data about kinds of abuse women experienced.

For example, an early survey revealed that Twitter’s existing protocol made it easy to report a single persistent harasser, but made it harder to report the abuse coming from a large number of accounts, of the kind GamerGate produced. According to Buzzfeed, Twitter itself has also been surveying users about the kind of harassment they encounter — on Twitter, but also on other platforms like Facebook and Instagram.

Though Twitter only has 228 million users — a small fraction of the 1.39 billion “monthly active users” that Facebook reports from around the world — this small platform has built up a reputation for vicious episodes of abuse.

The latest and noisiest incident has been GamerGate, a group that has targeted feminist writers and game developers, and sent a handful into hiding after death threats on the social network.

The GamerGate episode inspired an FBI investigation and an NBC adaptation on an episode of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” where a game developer seeks police protection when she receives threats on social media days before her big launch. In a case of life imitating art, local game developer Brianna Wu, one of GamerGate’s most outspoken targets, withdrew from the PaxEast gaming conference due to begin in Boston this month citing concerns for her safety.

Image: AFP/Getty Images/Leon Neal

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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