Twitter established a policy on reporting abuse several years ago. But the trolling keeps getting uglier, and more prominent users are closing their accounts. Trolling is also distracting everyday users, and not for the better.
Fans of the Olympics who are using the social media channel to keep track of the games found themselves surprised over the weekend. They had to weed through abuses hurled at athletes over their appearances and accomplishments, as highlighted by Jessica Van Sack of the Boston Herald. And some of the trolling inspired by the Rio Games appears to be state-sponsored. Australian Mack Horton, after winning the gold in the 400-meter freestyle swimming final, received heaps of abuse from fake Chinese profiles. Twitter is blocked in China, but fans there were upset over comments Horton made about the relay’s silver medalist, Sun Yang. The Chinese swimmer had been suspended in the past for doping.
And yesterday Normani Kordei of the girl band Fifth Harmony announced she was quitting Twitter after a torrent of racist abuse. The controversy came weeks after "Saturday Night Live" and "Ghostbusters" star Leslie Jones also briefly quit the social media channel after an onslaught of racist and sexist comments, the storm was allegedly launched by Breitbart News’ Milo Yiannopoulos.
Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter. But many anonymous users, who apparently do not understand what the First Amendment actually means, are not getting the message. Meanwhile more social media influencers are ditching the 10-year-old service, which has become so intertwined within our culture that a comment about a tweet became one of the best punchlines in Hillary Clinton’s speech accepting her party’s nomination.
One example is the feminist writer Jessica Valenti, who said late last month she was quitting Twitter after rape and death threats against her 5-year-old daughter. The list of on-and-off again and ex-Twitter users is long. Zelda Williams, the daughter of the late comedian Robin Williams, announced she was taking a break from the service. While Williams said the time off was due to the two-year anniversary of her father’s passing, the abuse she received after his death in August 2014 also led to an outcry over Twitter’s perceived lack of action. British food writer Jack Monroe deleted her Twitter account last year after a wave of homophobic taunts flooded her feed.
Indeed, one could argue many of these trolls are part of the 'disenfranchised white boy' demographic who have long felt “the system” has screwed them, with racial minorities and women being the easy targets for their invective. True, there is the argument that since the vast majority of these trolls hide behind anonymous handles, they would never say the things they post or tweet in a bar or any public place. For that matter, we could just consider the source and develop thicker skins. The problem with that argument is that this abuse seldom has to do with debates over content, and instead cuts into gender, sexuality and race. In fact, this behavior is akin to the stalking or harassment that is already covered by laws across the country, including in California.
And social media, with Twitter at the forefront, has a well-documented history of being used to broadcast other forms of hate and even terror, whether it is the supporters of jihadist groups such as Daesh (ISIS or ISIL in the Western press) or the fear-mongers who have reported pro-LGBT Muslim women to local authorities in that region.
The result is a bizarre outcome that would be a public relations nightmare for any company. Twitter has united two disparate movements, one being the forces often supporting demagogues like Donald Trump and David Duke and the other radical political groups in the Middle East who want to destroy anyone and anything in their way. Users in both groups hide behind anonymity and cowardice, but are skilled at shutting down open and free discussion. The result is a scarlet letter on Twitter than the company is either unable or unwilling to remove. As David Auerbach of Slate pointed out last year, Twitter keeps implementing policies that can be described as cosmetic at best and satisfy no one.
The outcome for Twitter is sluggish user growth as users either find other platforms on which to share their views or just avoid social media completely. And as Backchannel writer Jessi Hempel explains, Twitter’s business is suffering now and faces serious threats in the long term. The company’s stock is mired in a long slump, and it is the subject of acquisition rumors. When more public figures leave the service, that discourages the rest of us from signing up, which means advertisers are going to question the wisdom of advertising on the service. And without advertisers, Twitter cannot survive. The company should not be cowed into being a purported “free speech” zone when it is clear that the Constitution shields our speech from government interference and is not a document that provides cover to the worst elements of society.
Image credit: Troy Holden/Wiki Commons
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media. His previous work can be found at The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.