Harassment of Ghostbusters’ Leslie Jones shows Twitter needs to change

Leslie Jones, the star of the new “Ghostbusters” reboot and a cast member on “Saturday Night Live,” announced she was leaving Twitter after trolls bombarded her with racist comments.

“I leave Twitter tonight with tears and a very sad heart,” Jones tweeted before going silent on her account, where she’d spent the last several days battling trolls. “All this cause I did a movie. You can hate the movie but the shit I got today…wrong.”

The “Ghostbusters” remake has faced criticism since it was first reported that the film would feature an all-female cast, and much of the backlash has centered on the belief that men, not women, should be suiting up to fight ghosts. But trolls have singled out Jones, the only black star in the movie, for particularly pointed and racist harassment.

Since the movie opened on Friday, Jones has received harassing messages on Twitter. “Ok I have been called Apes, sent pics of their asses, even got a pic with semen on my face. I’m tryin to figure out what human means. I’m out,” Jones tweeted.

Although Jones said she was reporting the harassment to Twitter, the onslaught continued, with one user creating a fake account in her name and using it to tweet out homophobic and racist slurs. “Twitter I understand you got free speech,” Jones wrote. “I get it. But there has to be some guidelines when you let spread like that.”

The situation finally caught the attention of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who responded, “Hi Leslie, following, please DM me when you have a moment.”

Dorsey’s response is remarkably tepid, and proves that Twitter’s response to targeted harassment campaigns needs to change. Twitter often serves as a platform for large-scale harassment, and yet the company relies on users to report abusive behavior — which leaves victims to manage the deluge alone. Abusers know this and take advantage of it, returning to Twitter again and again to launch large-scale harassment campaigns.

“We rely on people to report this type of behavior to us, but we are continuing to invest heavily in improving our tools and enforcement systems to prevent this kind of abuse,” Twitter said in a statement. “We realize we still have a lot of work in front of us before Twitter is where it should be on how we handle these issues.”

Twitter’s policy is in stark contrast to other social media platforms, which proactively monitor for and remove harassment. Facebook uses artificial intelligence to scan text on its platform and provides resources about combatting bullying. Facebook also implements similar tech to police spam comments on Instagram. Twitter may be at a disadvantage because it lacks Facebook’s resources, and at least Twitter is committed to funding better tools to fight hate speech.

But this isn’t a new problem for Twitter, and the fact that harassment continues to drive users off the platform doesn’t bode well for the company’s sluggish user growth. Twitter’s best tool for blocking vile tweets en masse is its “quality filter,” which is only available to verified users and aims to block threats and abusive language. Twitter announced today that it will open up verification to more users, so the quality filter may soon become more widely available. However, users who are the targets of harassment campaigns may feel the need to monitor the threats they receive so they can keep track of threats and doxing and report these actions to authorities if necessary.

Twitter’s lackadaisical approach to harassment is especially strange, given the company’s prominence in social justice campaigns. The company has been a platform for political organizing in the U.S. and around the world, and has taken pride in being the social media of choice for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Dorsey also showed support for Blackbirds, Twitter’s black employee group, at CodeCon this year, sporting a #staywoke t-shirt. But Dorsey’s hashtag activism falls flat when black women like Jones can’t use Twitter without being overwhelmed by harassment. Twitter is at risk of becoming the next Reddit-like swamp of racism, sexism and homophobia. It’s time for Twitter to make #staywoke a way of living, not just a cute slogan on a t-shirt.