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Twitter releases new tools to report, mute online harassment

We may need this now more than ever


After years of people complaining about the the company’s response to harassment and abuse on its platform, Twitter is rolling out new methods to try and curb hateful activity.

Twitter announced today on its blog that it’s updating the service’s mute function, giving users the opportunity to mute entire threads and filter what they see in their notifications. According to a blog post on its website, users will be able to "mute notifications for Tweets [they are] mentioned in that contain particular words, phrases, usernames, emojis or hashtags." In doing so, these tweets will be removed from all notifications, including email and text notifications.

In its updated guidelines for muting certain accounts, terms or hashtags, Twitter has created a more thorough filtering tool for people to use. The company has also made it possible to mute entire conversations and threads that they’re a part of. For example, if two or three people are having a conversation and loop you in by including your handle, you can choose to mute the entire conversation. Although they won’t be notified about any direct responses under their notifications tab, the tweets will still appear in their timeline if they follow others included in the conversation.

Implementing these new measures is a method of filtering, but it’s not an actual moderating tool. On this specific front, Twitter isn’t doing anything to change the way people use its platform, but is simply allowing users to alter how they interact with it. Those tweets are still being sent — and can still be found — but it’s up to the person on the receiving end of it to do something. Instead of targeting those responsible for sending out hateful and abusive tweets to people, Twitter is trying to rebuild a crumbling wall as fast as it can to offer some kind of defense. Twitter’s ongoing issue is that the abusers have found ways to break down or get around those walls before, and it’s only a matter of time before they do it again.

By not making the abuse people are subjected to on its platform a higher priority, Twitter, much more than Facebook, is complicit in enabling harassers — and it’s something that CEO Jack Dorsey has admitted. In a call with investors this summer, Dorsey said that they weren’t doing enough to make the user experience a more enjoyable, and more importantly, a safer one for those that are targeted most often — women, minorities and queer folk.

"No one deserves to be the target of abuse on Twitter," Dorsey said, as reported by The Verge. "We haven’t been good enough at ensuring that’s the case, and we need to do better."

That’s where Twitter’s second updated strategy for tackling hateful activity comes in. Along with the upgraded muting system, the company also announced that it was adding a "Hateful Conduct" reporting tool that will allow any user to flag a tweet and bring it to the attention of the support team.

"We don’t expect these announcements to suddenly remove abusive conduct from Twitter"

So how, exactly, is this different from what Twitter has been doing before? There’s really one one notable difference between the previous "Report Abuse" page and the new "Report Hateful Conduct" page and that’s the inclusion of this specific issue: "It directs hate against a race, religion, gender, or orientation."

A Pew study from 2014 found that 40 percent of all online users endure some kind of harassment, with women between the ages of 18 and 24 twice as likely to have suffered from some kind of sexual harassment. In January 2015, Feminist Frequency founder Anita Sarkeesian collected a weeks worth of tweets that were directed at her because of her Tropes vs Women in Video Games series. Sarkeesian said that since she began the project, a full two-and-a-half years before posting the collection of tweets, she had been harassed on a daily basis by "irate gamers."

"It can sometimes be difficult to effectively communicate just how bad this sustained intimidation campaign really is," Sarkeesian wrote. "So I’ve taken the liberty of collecting a week’s worth of hateful messages sent to me on Twitter."

According to a study from Newsweek in 2014, between the period of Sept. 1 and Oct. 23, people sent a total of 10,400 tweets to developer Zoe Quinn in relation to GamerGate. Those in support of GamerGate, which they infamously declared was about "ethics in games journalism," made allegations that Quinn’s relationship with Kotaku reporter Nathan Grayson led to ethical questions over coverage of Quinn’s game, Depression Quest. In the same period of time, however, Grayson only received 732 tweets related to GamerGate.

"No one deserves to be the target of abuse on Twitter"

Critics have called out Twitter time and again for its inability to curb abuse that people receive on its platform, but it wasn’t until this past summer when actress and comedian Leslie Jones’ Twitter account was spammed with racist, sexist and degrading tweets that the company did anything about it. CEO Jack Dorsey personally intervened and spoke to Jones about the incident, leading to Twitter’s banning of controversial Breitbart columnist, Milo Yiannopoulos — a crusading figure in the GamerGate movement, who was deemed partially responsible for the attack on Jones.

Twitter’s addition of its "Report Hateful Conduct" tool indicates that the company is finally listening to complaints and willing to try to do more, but it didn’t announce if it was going to be bringing on more people to work in its support division. The company did reiterate that it was going to retrain every support team member on how to keep an eye out for abusive users and hateful tweets, adding that it would be implementing new internal tools to help its team respond to requests faster.

Despite that, Twitter said this is going to be an ongoing battle that it can’t solve on its own.

"We don’t expect these announcements to suddenly remove abusive conduct from Twitter," the post reads. "No single action by us would do that."

Twitter’s new anti-harassment tools will be rolling out today. Twitter has detailed step-by-step guides on how to mute or report abusive behavior. The company is asking those who see harassment happening to report it immediately.

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