Twitter rolls out troll controls

Free speech is fine, just don't expect anyone to be listening

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Rather than draining its swamp, Twitter aims to muffle the trolls that have taken up residence there.

Openness is great, the company explained in a blog post, but people are taking advantage of it to insult others.

"The amount of abuse, bullying, and harassment we've seen across the Internet has risen sharply over the past few years," the company said. "These behaviors inhibit people from participating on Twitter, or anywhere."

The problem isn't exclusive to Twitter. Facebook and Google are presently under fire for failing to stop fake news – deliberate misinformation rather than the substance-free social media content that represents a different sort of problem – from being disseminated through their respective platforms.

The problem is that social media companies want the benefit of openness – content provided at no charge by users – without the cost that traditionally accompanied publishing – editorial responsibility and legal liability.

It's a problem that may just be self-correcting. Openness has fallen out of fashion around the globe. Freedom House, an advocacy group, on Monday said authorities in 38 countries arrested people for social media posts over the past year. The group said internet freedom had declined for the sixth consecutive year.

And in the US, where the Statue of Liberty beckons the huddled masses, Donald Trump won the presidency on a platform of wall building and deportation.

Nevertheless, Twitter can't wait for politicians to find a way to make restrictions great again. It needs to lay down the law in order to make money from advertising. Few major companies will pay for ads in a cesspool.

For a company living on borrowed time, it has been taking rather leisurely steps to clean things up. Founded in 2006, Twitter first introduced rules in 2009. It added to its rules to deter spam over the next few years, and finally added a button to report abuse in 2013. This may have had something to do with the rape threats. Then there was Gamergate in 2014, which brought a few account suspensions but didn't change much.

It was about this time that Pew Internet Research noted that 26 per cent of women between the ages of 18 and 24 have been stalked online, and 25 per cent have been the target of online sexual harassment.

In early 2015, Dick Costolo, Twitter's CEO at the time, wrote a note to employees that said what everyone had known: "We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we've sucked at it for years."

The fruit of that realization was a Twitter feature that allows users to create lists of blocked accounts that can be shared with others, because Twitter would rather delegate police powers than take action itself.

Fast forward to today and Twitter is still working for the clampdown – it's expanding its mute capability.

Twitter users already have the ability to mute accounts, which removes associated tweets from users' timelines without unfollowing those accounts or alerting the muted that their invective has been banished to oblivion. The company's latest anti-harassment innovation is extending mute to notifications.

"We're enabling you to mute keywords, phrases, and even entire conversations you don't want to see notifications about, rolling out to everyone in the coming days," the company said.

Twitter also said it is giving users a more direct way to report abusive conduct, has required its staff to review its policies, and has improved its internal processes for dealing with reports of misconduct.

Twitter acknowledges that it doesn't expect these changes will end online abuse. "No single action by us would do that," the company said. "Instead we commit to rapidly improving Twitter based on everything we observe and learn."

The question, then, is whether Twitter is really paying close attention. ®

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