Cambridge group assesses Twitter’s record on confronting online harassment

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In November, Twitter allowed the Cambridge-based Women Action & the Media group to study how the social network responded to reports of harassment. The group collected complaints from Twitter users who faced abusive language or threats, and it also studied Twitter’s existing reporting tools.Women Action & the Media released its results Wednesday in a new report that brings harassment on Twitter into sharper focus, and revealed some of the shortfalls of the social network’s reporting tools. During its study period, the media organization collected 811 complaints, and forwarded the most pressing to Twitter.

“I think the biggest thing for me was the problem of evidence,” said Jamia Wilson, executive director of the media group.

When private details such as a target’s home address or family members were shared by a harasser, a practice known as “doxxing,” victims can currently only report the action by supplying Twitter with the tweet. But researchers found that many harassers would delete their threatening tweet, removing the evidence.

The group concluded that Twitter had a better record suspending accounts that were flagged for violent or hateful language but was slower to act when private information was released.

Wilson also noted that a significant number of complaints went unaddressed simply because they did not fit within the categories that Twitter had deemed objectionable. For example, Twitter does not recognize the “mobbing” effect — when an individual is targeted by hundreds of accounts — or instances where harassers revealed the former real names of transexual people, a behavior known as “deadnaming.”

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Twitter was also missing the fact that harassers followed their targets across social networks, moving from Twitter to Facebook, because existing tools did not record this trend.

In the report, the researchers recommend broadening the definitions of harassment so that these different kinds of threats did not fall through the cracks. The group also recommended Twitter change its policy to allow people to report violent users even if they covered their trail by deleting tweets.

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In the previous weeks leading up to the study, Twitter had come under intense scrutiny for allowing hostile and threatening behavior to go unchecked. The group GamerGate group had sent Massachusetts developer Brianna Wu into hiding after she spoke up about misogyny in the gaming industry, and Robin Williams’s daughter, Zelda, made the first of a series of high-profile exits from Twitter because of the threats and hostility she encountered there in the wake of her father’s death.

This year, Twitter has implemented a few changes to its tools in an effort to make reporting easier. The company also expanded its team dedicated to safety and implemented a tool that would automatically flag abusive tweets and limit their visibility.

You can read the full report and a list of recommendations here.

Image via Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images 

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