Twitter’s abuse problem is absolutely a failure of leadership

Twitter has blundered into yet another moderation crisis after it temporarily suspended the account of actress Rose McGowan as she was using its platform to speak out against sexual harassment of women in the wake of sexual abuse allegations now coming out against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

It appears that Twitter’s anti-abuse algorithms might have triggered the suspension, though the company declined to comment, telling us: “We don’t comment on individual accounts for privacy and security reasons.”

The suspension was reported earlier by Variety after McGowan posted to her Instagram account, saying: “TWITTER HAS SUSPENDED ME. THERE ARE POWERFUL FORCES AT WORK. BE MY VOICE. #ROSEARMY.”

Her Twitter account has since been reinstated but the sight of a victim of sexual violence against women being silenced (even temporarily) at the very point that she was denouncing sexual violence against women is, to say the least, not a good look for Twitter.

Especially given extant criticism from many, many female users who face sexualized (and other forms) of abuse on its platform — yet when they report threats of rape, for instance, they frequently report being told by Twitter that this type of speech does not violate its community standards.

And that despite Twitter’s own rules claiming to censure “Violent threats (direct or indirect)” and also stating: “You may not incite or engage in the targeted abuse or harassment of others.”

McGowan herself settled with Weinstein in 1997, and has apparently been limited in what she can say publicly about what happened to her as a result of that prior legal agreement. But at the time of her Twitter suspension she was tweeting in support of the women coming out with their own stories of sexual abuse now.

As well as calling out people she perceived to have been supportive of Weinstein and/or complicit in a culture of silence regarding male power in Hollywood — and thus implicated in helping enable a cover-up.

Thus Twitter silencing her voice really couldn’t have come at a worse moment…

It’s possible that McGowan’s use of a swear word directed at a verified Twitter user, actor Ben Affleck, is what triggered Twitter’s anti-abuse algorithms — and led to the suspension of her account. But there’s no way to be sure given that Twitter isn’t commenting.

In other instances women who have received targeted harassment on Twitter have reported their accounts being suspended after their abusers co-ordinated to file multiple reports against them (a well documented tactic utilizing other platforms such as 4Chan to organize pile-ons) — whereas their one-report-per-abusive-tweet apparently fails to get the attention of Twitter’s algorithms.

That kind of fatal asymmetry is something Twitter has been warned about for years.

Yet somehow the company continues to be incapable of fixing its abuse problem — talking instead about how it offers tools for people to manage their exposure to content on the platform.

A response which merely highlights how flawed the Twitter leadership’s perspective on this issue is.

“It’s generally true that anti-troll tools are used by trolls against their victims,” agrees law academic Paul Bernal, who has tweeted a series of thoughts on the McGowan suspension.

“We rely on algorithms to our peril,” he adds.

There’s also the unfortunate contrast between Twitter giving U.S. president Donald Trump the thumbs up to tweet-threaten nuclear apocalypse because it’s “newsworthy” vs a victim of sexual abuse, the name of whose abuser is now all over the news on account of new allegations of abuse against him, being silenced because — well, why??

Twitter has clearly not fixed the problem of abuse on its platform — and very clearly also continues to fail to fix the problem of abuse on its platform.

Leaning on algorithms to do this vital work appears to be a large part of this failure.

But not listening to the users who are being abused is a even greater — and more telling — lapse of leadership.

Combine those two — blind faith in algorithms and a blinkered executive perspective — and, well, you have a toxic trashfire.

Slow handclap for @Jack.