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Twitter's New Safety Rules: Hot Diggity or Hot Air?

By Richard Adhikari
Mar 3, 2015 12:42 PM PT

Twitter last week announced actions to further protect users of its network -- but it left them vague.

Twitter's New Safety Rules: Hot Diggity or Hot Air?

The company is rolling out unspecified improvements to its reporting process for content issues including impersonation, self-harm, and the sharing of private and confidential information, aka "doxing."

It's also beginning to add new enforcement actions for use against accounts that violate its rules.

However, in announcing the updates, Tina Bhatnagar, VP of user services, did not specify just what Twitter will do.

Haters Hating

That doesn't sit well with Twitter abuse victim Imani Gandy, senior legal analyst at RH Reality Check.

"They're not really saying what they're doing, and it's been years of their saying they're updating their rules and going to fix things," she told TechNewsWorld.

Gandy for years has been harassed by someone with the handle "Assholster," who created up to 10 different Twitter accounts on most days to hurl racist invective at her.

After going through Twitter's various reporting processes, Gandy began tweeting screenshots of the harassing messages to Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, who eventually responded that Twitter was on the issue and left it at that.

"Twitter's rules say you're not supposed to tweet from serial accounts and they have no way of preventing that," Gandy said. "They're a big company with a lot of smart people, and it seems they should be able to figure out how to stop this."

What Twitter Possibly Might Do

Twitter might require offenders who have been suspended temporarily to provide an email address and a phone number to verify their identity, according to media reports. Also, it might permanently ban repeat offenders.

Twitter will let users report doxing -- e.g., the publication of personal information, such as a physical address, without consent.

Doxing led female game developers Brianna Wu and Zoe Quinn to flee their homes after their locations were exposed, following intense harassment including death threats.

There's a way around the phone number restriction. Offenders can just apply for a new Twitter account with a different email address instead, as Twitter doesn't require people to provide their phone numbers when they sign up for membership.

"At this point, we don't know what the phone number tracking means, and time will tell how effective it might be," said Jamia Wilson, executive director of Women, Action & the Media, or WAM.

A Clear and Present Danger

The harassment of targets on Twitter, especially women, has reached a level that might be difficult to believe.

For example, in January one Fenes Octavian called feminist speaker and blogger Anita Sarkeesian a "despicable whore"; someone called "Adenama" suggested she kill herself; someone with the handle "Cod Community Lawyer" told her to "shut the f*ck up bitch;" and others issued rape and death threats. [*Correction - March 16, 2015]

WAM, which ran a three-week pilot program to address the pervasive targeting of women on Twitter, received nearly 700 reports during that period and helped more than 100 victims get fast action from Twitter.

"With this Gamergate thing going on, some woman is going to be killed somewhere," Gandy warned.

Twitter did not respond to our request for further details.

Baby Steps, Just Baby Steps

Twitter's latest updates follow some made in December.

"We view Twitter's willingness to try new things to address online abuse as a positive step," WAM's Wilson told TechNewsWorld. "We look forward to continuing to work to make sure their efforts are effective and impactful."

WAM was pleased to hear that Twitter has added staff to its moderation team, Wilson remarked, as the organization had called for it "publicly and repeatedly in November."

Still, Twitter is only doing what it should be doing as the provider of a microblogging service that's open to the public, contended Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

"The provider of the service has the responsibility to ensure its customers are safe," he told TechNewsWorld. "It isn't only the right thing to do -- it's the best business decision, because folks will not use a service that makes them feel unsafe."

*ECT News Network editor's note - March 16, 2015: Our original published version of this story incorrectly stated that Fenes Octavian suggested that Anita Sarkeesian kill herself. That suggestion actually was made by someone with the handle "Adenama" in the tweet immediately following Octavian's "despicable whore" tweet. We regret the error.


Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.


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What is the most consequential impact of social media on society today?
It has opened up valuable new channels for civil discourse.
It has destroyed the meaning of "truth" and "fact."
It has made people stronger by facilitating grass roots activism.
It has deepened divisions among groups with opposing views.
It has made it easier for people to support and help each other.
It has made it easier for people to humiliate and hurt each other.