Twitter and Harassment

They’ve got a long way to go.

Last night, I was discussing the sexual assault allegations that have come out recently about Donald Trump with a Trump supporter. She had some interesting thoughts, which I was busily responding to when I suddenly started receiving some rather disturbing tweets from other Trump supporters. It wasn’t my first time encountering the full-on alt-right guys, so I thought that eventually they’d get bored and go away. They often do.

The first clue that something weird was going on was that the initiator of the hate tweets started adding me to random lists. No big deal. Then I noticed that one of the tweets I had been sent and lists I had been added to went above and beyond their typical deplorable behavior.

An anime image of an SS officer with the line “feminists should be the first to go” followed by #RWDS.

The list I had been added to had my first and last name followed by an accusation that I have AIDS. There’s nothing shameful about having AIDS or having any other health care issue that is normally spread through sexual contact. The problem is using a health issue to try to defame another person. That it was somehow acceptable, in that person’s eyes, to degrade anyone by bringing up AIDS was rather telling about the kind of mindset that is attracted to the Trump campaign.

But the image that I received from one of that person’s friends was even more disturbing. It was a graphic of an SS officer with a tweet saying “feminists should be the first to go. #RWDS” — RWDS is short for right-wing death squad. (Technically, it’s a meme, but so are a lot of the horrible things posted in defense of Trump and bigotry. That doesn’t make them less disturbing, bigoted, or violent.) He continued sending tweets, saying that he thought David Duke was a smart man and that he deserved to win his election. Again, this is indicative of what sort of people find Donald Trump to be a good leader and the type who defend him vociferously.

I started blocking and reporting the participants in the harassment right after this. But Twitter did something I wasn’t expecting. They declared that the initiator wasn’t harassing me and that the #RWDS account wasn’t threatening anyone’s safety. Well, that’s odd. It seems like continuously sending hateful tweets to a person with the intent to intimidate or otherwise bully them into submission would qualify as harassment. Didn’t Twitter promise to do better after what happened with Leslie Jones earlier this year? Haven’t they been confronted by multiple people from marginalized groups over their refusal to act on harassing tweets? Haven’t Jewish journalists challenged their inaction on antisemitism enough? And who needs any of those challenges, confrontations, and lessons to know that an image of an SS officer with a hashtag for right-wing death squads is obviously making a threat? Even without the line about feminists, this shouldn’t be a hard conclusion to come to.

But, for Twitter, it is.

I didn’t expect action on all of the 20 people involved in last night’s harassment or the 30-or-so tweets that were involved, but these two people should have at least had the offending tweets removed. Why is Twitter refusing to take action on people who are obviously breaking the rules? How many people have to be harassed for it to matter? Or do the people who are being harassed just need to be of a certain status in order to get it across to Twitter that there’s something wrong here?

There is absolutely no reason for someone to tweet someone and tell them that they deserve to be killed or assaulted or raped, even as a joke. There is absolutely no way that sending that message to a person can be justified or classified as a non-threat or as non-harassing language. I know that Twitter’s support team is only human, but it seems like they could at least figure out when something is so obviously abusive. We expect better behavior from kindergartners than we do from adults on the internet. That seems pretty broken and definitely far from ideal.

For a society that prides itself on how far it has come, we have a long way to go. And we can’t get to that ideal place if companies like Twitter continue to give abusers a platform.

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