What Twitter’s New Filtering System Really Means For Online Harassment

twitter-quality-filterLast week Twitter announced a new measure to combat harassment on its platform, a quality filter that filters out threatening and hateful tweets from the timelines of all its users. (Previously only verified users had this feature.) This comes after a rather damning investigation by Buzzfeed into the reasons why the company has struggled with dealing with harassment for the past decade, namely because its priority goes to celebrities and brands, who bring the new users to the yard, and the company’s strange ideas about free speech. This piece doesn’t really give very much new information to those of us who have been bemoaning the company’s lack of protection of its users who experience harassment, mostly women and people of colour, but it does confirm most of the things people have been saying for years. (This includes myself.) And while this filter might sound like a step in the right direction for the fight against online harassment, especially given the rough summer Twitter has had in this regard, unfortunately, I think this move might serve to make harassment online worse for its victims.

So here’s how the filter works. You may have noticed that your notifications page now has a little link in the upper right hand corner that says “Settings.” From here you can turn the quality filter on or off, or even set your mentions to “People I follow.” When the filter is on, it works a bit like a spam filter – it recognizes certain threatening, harassing and spam phrases and blocks the user from seeing them. And it reportedly works pretty well. But here’s where I think Twitter has missed the mark. The person who posts these tweets never knows that the person they tweeted at never saw their message, and their message will still show up on their own wall. I understand why Twitter did this: it makes it seem like they’re hard on harassers without actually having to do anything about the behaviour, because for some reason Twitter execs seem to think that threats and hate speech is protected under free speech. (It’s not.) At the same time, it gets celebs off their backs because their mentions are now (mostly) asshole-free. But what it doesn’t do, is stop or penalize the behaviour in the first place. And because the tweets can still be seen by a harasser’s followers, it helps these people find each other. This is BAD.

The problem is that not only does this filter not hold the harasser in any way responsible for violating the terms of Twitter’s terms of service, but it also ignores how harassers operate. By allowing the tweets to show up on a harasser’s account, it means that other people can retweet it, and can even help these people find each other. It’s basically putting racists and misogynists into their own positive feedback loop. They can still find someone and say these terrible things about their targets to each other to their heart’s content. And because they now know that their victims probably aren’t seeing their wit, it also makes it more likely that this harassment will escalate and move to other online space. Fuck, it’s already happened, and it’s only been a week. Harassers of Ghostbuster’s Leslie Jones have taken their harassment up a notch by hacking her site, doxxing her, and posting nude photos. It has only been ONE WEEK. Twitter is still offering these people a space to mobilize, and it’s the worst possible thing they could have done. People who post harassment and threats on Twitter should not be allowed to post things like this. If the filter can stop the victims from seeing them, why can’t it stop harassers from posting them, with a helpful message that this tweet violates their terms of service? At the very least, it should be flagging accounts that should be permanently banned from the site. Free speech is meant to prevent governments from censoring its citizens, it is not meant to protect people posting hate speech on a corporation’s website. It’s not meant to protect hate speech and threats at all.

So sorry Twitter, you’re not getting any cookies for this one from me.

Writer, editor, and founding member of Paper Droids. RPG-lover, baby game maker, owned by corgi. Spends way too much time on Twitter @mk_patter. To reach by email: sciandtech@paperdroids.com