A New Anti-Trolling Tool For Twitter: Handle Masks:

Twitter abuse will always be with us

Most Twitter anti-abuse “features” to date, while symbolically important, have yet to make much of an impact on the more familiar and serious kinds of trolling and abuse, especially what I call “@mentions spam.” This is when an abuser will repeatedly use someone’s Twitter account name — often called a @handle — to hector, bully, threaten, taint, or otherwise harass and victimize them. Often, this behavior can’t be easily policed without stepping on free speech values.

I would like to propose that Twitter implement a simple concept that I call “Handle Masking.”

Whenever an abuser’s account is blocked by a ‘victim,’ the victim’s handle is always hidden — or masked out — whenever the abuser tries to use it in a tweet. It’s not a good look.

Abusers gonna abuse…

And their first goal with mentions spam is always to flood timelines, searches and #hashtags with invective, insults, defamation, attack site URLs, and anything derogatory about their target. My own timeline, for example, has been inundated with such nonsense for almost a decade, alleging everything from misogyny to pedophilia and everything in between.

The troll’s ultimate motivation is to get our attention, make us mad, and lure us into engaging them. But it’s also to ignite flash-fires of retweeting and other means of amplifying the troll’s invective by other users. And that’s what often causes most of the grief, stress, and other damage to users, reputations, and brands.

What is a Handle Mask?

Suppose we could all see at a glance that someone was using a blocked handle, and therefore was probably trying to abuse the person behind that handle? Repeatedly tweeting the visibly blocked handle could — or at least should — embarrass the abuser before some of their peers, while signaling to everyone else that the tweets were toxic and should not be retweeted. The Handle Mask would achieve this quickly, and at minimal cost. Here’s how it works:

Whenever you block someone, your own handle will be automatically hidden — or masked — whenever the blocked person uses it in their tweets. Thus, if you, @victim_101, blocks @abuser_666, then anything the abuser tweets that mentions you will show only the mask, not your handle. For example:

That’s all there is to it.

Because you have already blocked the abuser, you won’t see their tweet anyway. But when anyone else happens to see it, all they will see is the mask where your name would normally be. The more the abuser tries to mention you, the more their followers — and users seeing their tweets in hashtag and search feeds — will just see them being very creepy, spamming someone that already blocked them. They usually won’t even know who the target is.

Of course, people who are inadvertently or otherwise unfairly blocked (lookin’ at you @keitholbermann) will be masked too, but most users know that such bad-blocks happen sometimes. Only the true serial abuser will use a masked handle repeatedly.

Will handle masks dissuade the hard-core abuser? No, they will not. But their options will be limited to just typing your name without the “@”, making it just as evident that you’ve blocked them. Among decent people, this should have a scarlet letter effect, stigmatizing the creeps whenever they use your @name.

Naturally, the dedicated abuser will try to get around the mask by just using the raw handle text without the “@.” But since that would match the blocked handle’s text, Twitter will simply mask it — and other predictable hacks — as well.

If the idea proves effective on Twitter, it can easily be cloned by Facebook, Instagram, and most other social media services.

Nothing will ever stop online abuse, and no partial-fixes can be perfect. But my 10 years of experience on Twitter gives me great confidence that the handle mask will squelch a significant amount of the random mentions spam at the heart of so much trolling and other online abuse. And that will be a far better situation than what we have now.

If you think this is a reasonable idea, please do the following:

  1. Follow me, @shoq on Twitter so you can discuss #handleMasks with me, your friends (and your trolls), and get updates from me if Twitter responds to this idea.
  2. Answer this simple poll question about the idea.
  3. Tweet a suggestion that Twitter implement the idea — or at least test it:
    @jack @twittersafety — Please consider this #HandleMasks idea to cut down on even more Twitter trolling and abuse. purl.org/sv/masks
  4. If you’re with the press, or a blogger, and decide to write about this idea, please tweet feel free contact me on Twitter/@shoq. Or at least tweet me your story. Thanks!

Recent Press

Can ‘Handle Masking’ Help Minimize Twitter Harassment? — CrooksAndLiars.com

About me

I’m a veteran Twitter user that has had more than my fair share of trolling, so I was highly motivated to find some form or remedy for the problem. Follow me on Twitter — @shoq — and we’ll talk about it.

Related Readings

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A Honeypot For Assholes”: Inside Twitter’s 10-Year Failure To Stop Harassment

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I believe in the semantic web. I just don't know what that means.