Stop Twitter Harassment, 1–2–3

On Monday Leslie Jones, one of the stars of the new Ghostbusters movie, was harassed into leaving Twitter by a dedicated online hate group. This isn’t Twitter’s first harassment disaster and judging by the company’s historical lack of effective response to cases of harassment, this won’t be its last.

While I haven’t personally experienced this sort of harassment on Twitter and can’t speak to its effects on its victims, I do want to do anything within my power to help. So I’ve come up with three privacy ideas that will give users more control over who can communicate with them on an open social network. I then describe how these features combine to create effective protection and attempt to start a dialog between Twitter and its users for the purposes of addressing harassment on Twitter. If you’re curious about the hurtful impact online harassment has on its victims I encourage you to read Leslie Jones’ Twitter feed.

Add these privacy features to Twitter

  1. Give users the option to block a user and block all their followers. Let’s call it superblocking. This is a third option in addition to the blocking and muting already available. Think of it as a blocking chain of command. If I block someone this way, any account that follows them is also considered blocked by me. If one of those subsequently blocked users tries to unfollow the user I superblocked to circumvent my privacy setting, they will have to wait 72 hours before I appear unblocked.
  2. Add an option to prevent accounts <7 days old from interacting with you. They are effectively muted by default.
  3. Add an option to prevent accounts with <N followers from interacting with you. Putting N somewhere in the range of 15 to 50 should work.

Here’s how they work

If you utilize all three of these options together it creates formidable protection. Ringleader accounts that mobilize harassers become easy block targets and the block dynamically applies to their entire audience, present and future. If those audience members try to get around this block by creating a new account they will run into the second privacy feature and have to wait a week. If they try to get around the block by unfollowing the ringleader they will still have to wait 72 hours. If they want to preemptively create a network of fake accounts that circumvent all three protections, it will require a great deal of coordination which can be instantly defeated by blocking just one of the accounts and all its followers.

In short it becomes easier to silence Twitter users than it is to create new, realistic-looking Twitter users. A lone account made for harassment no longer has any power and must team up with other harassing users’ accounts (by creating follower rings) which of course makes them an easy target for blocking them and all their followers.

There’s also a bit of social defense. If a user tries to reach your feed and is informed they are blocked because they follow another user, it will cause them to question following that user. Harassment ringleaders with large followers become a magnet for blocks and put their followers in a difficult position. Do I follow this person and suffer being widely blocked by association, or unfollow them and no longer give them a platform for their hate? You know, just like in real life.

Best of all, Twitter doesn’t have to decide whose speech is or isn’t censored. Users make all the decisions about who to block and those personal preferences trickle down Twitter’s social hierarchy, giving users the power to police themselves. If you’re a jerk on Twitter not only will you be widely blocked, but your followers will slowly leave you as they realize you are restricting their Twitter experience.

These rules also represent a good faith maneuver by Twitter to address harassment. Ideally Twitter doesn’t want many accounts to use or enable these features as it restricts the rights of users both new and old and degrades their Twitter experience. We call this having some skin in the game. If Twitter doesn’t continue to develop preventative technology which detects and stops harassment before it happens, more and more users will enable these features and constrict Twitter’s key metrics.

Here’s how to get Twitter’s attention

I don’t work at Twitter and those three features took me about 5 minutes to come up with. I don’t mention that to imply Twitter employees are stupid or lazy. I’m sure they know a lot more than I do about their own domain and could easily have come up with this solution in even less than 5 minutes, so the interesting question to me is why haven’t they done it already? There must be an intelligent business reason (that benefits Twitter specifically) to not give users these tools. It should become our job to find out that reason, remove the information asymmetry, and improve our chances at negotiating a working solution with Twitter.

To further the conversation then, we should request the answer to this question: why don’t we have these tools already? If Twitter is serious about dealing with harassment on their platform what is the reason for not already implementing these three tools that were easy for stupid old me to come up with?

The way I see it, Twitter only has a few ways to answer this question. The first is to say there are technological limitations that prevent it from working. The good news is if they said that out loud some engineer at Twitter would take it as a challenge and come up with a working solution in no time. (I told you they were smart!) If it wasn’t an engineer at Twitter it would be some other clever engineer with similar domain knowledge. Basically we would know pretty quickly if the technological limitation is bunk. And if it were legit, it would create a lot of fame and incentive around solving this problem.

The next answer is that allowing users to easily block off large sections of Twitter somehow goes against their vision of how Twitter should work. Since the users are the ones getting harassed and are therefore carrying the burden of Twitter’s vision, Twitter should at least take a moment to explain their reasoning to us so we can know what core belief we’re protecting when we agree to live with harassment. Maybe Twitter is ideologically not a platform we want to be a part of, or maybe Twitter can update their vision to better reflect their users’ values. The first step is knowing what the difference actually is between Twitter’s and our expectations.

The final way to answer this question is of course with silence or abstract promises that things will get better. And this is historically how Twitter has answered. And so far nothing has gotten better. The only reason you would stay silent in the face of reasonable people asking you why you won’t help them be safe from harassment, when they are literally telling you the tools they need to feel safe, is because the reason could be that Twitter directly benefits from the harassment. This could be in the form of DAU, engagement, ad impressions, new user signups, or whatever other key metrics Twitter is focused on at the moment to justify their business to external parties. Let me state this more succinctly: if Twitter gives us a typical non-action response, one conclusion we can draw is that Twitter is a website that knowingly monetizes harassment.

It’s important that we call Twitter out on stuff like this. We need better information with which to negotiate a solution, otherwise Twitter can wait for us to tire out and consider that the solution.

So let’s start the conversation by asking right now:

Twitter, will you implement these three tools on your platform to help us control harassment? And if not, what are your reservations?

Thank you for your time.