Thoughts on new Twitter features: filters and reporting

This morning, Twitter released a blog post about new anti-abuse tools being rolled out: specifically, the ability to filter keywords, mute conversations, and a new reporting feature for hate speech.

I’m going to be honest with y’all. Given everything that’s happened in US politics, as I check my text messages to see yet another friend has been accosted by a Trump hat wearing motherfucker while going to their tech jobs, I’m personally having a hard time finding my give-a-fuck about social media, but I will do my best. This is my job, after all.

For a company like Twitter, it takes a while to introduce new features. They have to be tested extensively. If there’s any major infrastructure changes, load becomes an issue. New API calls sometimes have to be rolled out, depending on the feature in question. If it’s a client side change, multiple client teams have to roll out the update at the same time to keep a unified experience across every platform. Rolling out new features isn’t a small thing, so I am very curious as to the timing of this announcement.

I’m willing to bet that the filter has been in the pipeline for a while. While filtering simple keywords is a pretty easy thing to do, defining the UI can be a challenge. Muting an entire conversation is probably a bit trickier, and I don’t think the API documentation has been updated yet with that new call. It would make sense to add an API call for this, but if they haven’t, I think it’s a fair assumption that it was rushed out the door a bit quickly in response to what’s happening in America right now.

From a user’s perspective, I think the new additions are solid, if not a little confusing. Most people don’t actually know how mute works. They think that it’s the same thing as block, but that the target can still follow you and see your tweets. While yes, that’s true, it acts a bit differently if you’re following the person you’re muting. You don’t see their tweets in your timeline, but you’ll still see the notification if they mention your name.

Twitter is using the ‘mute’ terminology when talking about creating filters, so I have to wonder if it’s going to behave the same way. I hope that it does, because that’s actually a pretty reasonable default, even if it isn’t very clear to the average user. Does this distinction also apply for muting threads? If it doesn’t, Twitter needs to employ different terminology. They need to ensure that people understand exactly how this feature works.

It’s also worth considering that the content of the tweet may not contain a term you want to filter, but the user’s bio might be more of an indicator. For example, do I want to see tweets from the walking trashfires using #MAGA or #tcot in their bio? Fuck, no. Fuck those guys. Do they use these hashtags while tweeting racist or sexist bullshit at their targets? Usually, no. It does not appear that Twitter offers this as an option, but I’m not really surprised by that.

Am I happy these features exist? Yes. Technically, they already existed in Tweetdeck, the client that Twitter bought and destroyed by not pushing any significant updates to keep it in line with their feature set. I don’t know what the fuck happened there, but Tweetdeck was amazing and Twitter either didn’t give it enough resources or gave it a project manager that doesn’t give a fuck. So, thanks, I guess, for finally pushing out a feature that existed in one of your clients until you let it rot. It only took them how many years to do so?

Maybe I’m being a little harsh. I am actually pretty thankful that this exists, now more than ever. We need it. In a bizarre turn of events, Twitter is about to become a more viable place for conversation than public meatspace.

Since the first of November, I’ve only had one case kicked back when reporting abuse. The rest of the reports I submitted that were about abusive tweets directed at myself were all acted upon, although in most cases, Twitter forced them to delete the tweets but allowed them to keep their accounts. Viewing those account timelines, well, let’s just say they wouldn’t have been a loss to the platform. I’m not actually a huge fan of banning someone from a platform except for in extreme circumstances, but the majority of the content in these timelines was hate speech delivered to minority targets.

Just so I’m clear, the reports I submit to Twitter don’t get special consideration. I burnt those bridges when I wrote about the Twitter trashfire. I’m submitting my tickets the same way everyone else is — by selecting report on a tweet or profile. I don’t report all the bullshit I see, but only usually the most egregious, or the ones that are obviously actionable, like threats of harm or requests of self-harm. It’s not that I don’t want to report tweets where some asswad is repeatedly tweeting “FEMINAZI CUNT” at me, but it’s learned behavior that reporting those tweets accomplishes very little. If Twitter wants people to see their platform as being a viable haven from hate speech, they are going to have to do some outstanding work in responding to these reports to reset the expectations of people that have been under fire on their platform for so very long.

While they’ve had a few fuck-ups (like allowing Lena Dunham’s address to be posted on Twitter in a screenshot taken from the voter registration database, but that’s a Medium post for a different time), they’ve done a much better job with abuse recently. I think it’s definitely a sign of the times that Twitter added a new reporting option for hate speech. Maybe they don’t want to come under the same criticism that Facebook is now dealing with (again, another Medium post incoming on this). That’s valid and not the worst reason for cracking down on hate speech. I don’t really give a shit about motivation as long as there are results.

Let’s be clear — they are going to get some hate for this. Activists are going to say that it’s too little, too late. MAGA/conservatives are going to talk about how the platform is becoming an echo chamber or a safe space or some bullshit like that, because heaven forbid it become punishable to go around screaming racist epithets, or that someone is allowed to find new ways to not listen to you. This will probably be one of the nicer posts you read, and I know that’s really fucking weird considering the source.

I’m not saying everything is perfect, or that Twitter deserves a cookie, or that they are even going to have better responses to reports of hate speech. But right now, find your victories where you can. Twitter just took a few more steps towards creating a better platform where ideas can be shared without a swarm of dicks monopolizing the conversation, and that’s a good thing.

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