Harassment is breaking Twitter's free speech experiment

Harassment is breaking Twitter's free speech experiment
    You guys are not going to believe
    what Trump just tweeted.
    Uh oh.
    Try it again.
    You guys are not going to believe what Trump—
    What's wrong?
    One more time.
    You guys are not going to—
    You know what?
    Never mind.
    Twitter's harassment problem is out of control
    and it's changing the way we talk about
    free speech on the internet.
    Before we talk about what Twitter is,
    we should talk about what Twitter was supposed to be.
    In the preamble to its original rules, Twitter stated:
    except in limited circumstances.”
    In other words,
    Twitter was supposed to be a neutral platform
    where you could say anything to anyone
    with very few rules.
    Twitter, and Blogger before it, were very interested in
    kind of committing to that principle of free speech.
    If you get the barriers out of the way, speech will happen,
    rich discussion will happen, the best ideas will bubble forth.
    That's Tarleton Gillespie, who's been studying speech
    on the internet since Napster was around.
    What's Napster?
    Am I old?
    Twitter prided itself on being an anti-censorship platform,
    especially after it played a role in the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011.
    That was a very compelling idea for what Twitter could be,
    what citizen journalism could be.
    For a while, Twitter talked about themselves as
    the free speech wing of the free speech party.
    Twitter's commitment to free speech was
    baked into its design and structure.
    You can tweet anonymously,
    meaning you won't be punished for your opinions.
    You can tweet at whoever you want,
    meaning you don't need permission to talk to
    politicians and celebrities.
    And maybe most importantly,
    beyond copyright infringement and impersonation,
    Twitter was not interested in monitoring what you tweeted.
    That was a very powerful commitment for them
    and made them design their tool in really compelling ways.
    Sorry, one second.
    Jesus, someone tweeted that?
    No, it's a text from my mom.
    Twitter began as a radical experiment in free speech.
    But over time that experiment started to fall apart
    because the same features that made Twitter
    so attractive to citizen journalists and political dissidents
    also made it a perfect environment for trolls:
    neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and misogynists.
    These users realized they could use Twitter's anonymity
    and structure to target and harass people they didn't agree with.
    And before long,
    Twitter had a massive PR problem on their hands.
    Every few weeks, another story about Twitter
    being overrun by abuse —
    high-profile users like journalists, celebrities, and authors
    leaving the platform because of Twitter's inability
    to deal with harassment.
    One of those users was Lindy West.
    I am a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.
    I wrote a book called Shrill that came out in 2016.
    I'm just a general sort of internet feminist.
    West loved Twitter at first.
    But over time,
    her work made her the target of brutal harassment campaigns.
    Very quickly, my experience on Twitter became
    one of endless constant harassment.
    I'll just read them.
    "No need for you to worry about rape, uggo."
    "That big bitch is bitter that no one wants to rape her."
    "What a fucking cunt."
    "Kill yourself you dumb bitch."
    Is that enough?
    Oh, there's so many more.
    West recognized early on that that harassment
    wasn't just mean.
    It had a purpose.
    They want you removed from the national conversation
    and removed from whatever little shred of power
    you've managed to achieve.
    And Twitter realized it too.
    In 2015, former CEO Dick Costolo told employees,
    Twitter's radical free speech experiment had failed.
    If you have a commitment to free speech
    and some of your users are being shouted down,
    threatened, and driven off the platform,
    something's happening to their speech.
    The idea that you can be neutral without any moderation
    is an illusion, and it's a very lazy, self-serving illusion.
    Sorry, sorry.
    Twitter again?
    So this is where things start to get really dicey,
    because Twitter has to answer this basic
    but messy question:
    Is Twitter really a neutral service provider,
    like Verizon or Comcast, offering a semi-public platform
    without caring about what happens on it?
    Or had Twitter become something else,
    a community moderator that cares about
    the content and behavior of its users?
    So far Twitter's answer has been:
    On one hand, the company is clearly moving away
    from its radical free speech roots.
    Twitter has slowly introduced tougher
    and tougher rules for dealing with harassment,
    prohibiting things like violent threats
    and incitements to harass.
    And in October, Twitter announced new rules
    to deal with violent groups and hateful images.
    Those are positive developments for victims of abuse,
    but enforcing those rules is making Twitter answer
    tougher and tougher questions about users’ content.
    Is this harassment?
    What about this?
    What about now?
    Is this harassment?
    What about now?
    Is this an example of hate speech?
    What about this?
    Is this a violent threat?
    How about now?
    What about now?
    Is this a hate image?
    What about this?
    How about now?
    Is this a dangerous group?
    What about this?
    There's no neutral way to answer these questions.
    The amount of accounts they're looking at,
    the kind of range they're looking at,
    how they judge what someone's doing,
    what their intent is, whether they're reading
    the situation correctly, those are immensely difficult things to do.
    Twitter won't say how it's going to make these calls.
    It's just asking us to trust them.
    And West worries those decisions might
    end up making the problem worse.
    The waters really get muddied.
    I know black activists whose accounts
    have been shut down for criticizing white people
    because it's "racist."
    At the same time, Twitter still wants to be treated
    like a neutral speech platform.
    In July, a month before the white supremacist rally
    in Charlottesville, Twitter rolled out
    a "see every side" ad campaign,
    celebrating its "everything's cool" approach to politics.
    Yep, that's a frat bro,
    Chadwick I'm assuming,
    tweeting about climate change being fake.
    Sweet Chadwick.
    When current Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was asked
    what kind of tool Twitter is, Dorsey responded
    To what?
    What does that mean?
    Closer to neo-Nazis?
    Closer to the targets of our harassment?
    Twitter is stuck between these competing visions
    of its responsibility to its users.
    Which is how we end up with a website that bans
    white supremacist content but verifies
    actual white supremacists.
    I don't envy Twitter.
    You know, it's a huge problem.
    It's very, very complicated.
    I don't know how to fix it.
    Did you tweet this at me?
    Wrap it up!
    Fine, look.
    Any platform with rules has to have
    a reason for those rules,
    a goal those rules are trying to advance.
    Twitter doesn't right now.
    But by starting to crack down on abuse,
    Twitter is kind of opening Pandora's box,
    opening itself up to more and more responsibility
    for what happens on its platform.
    If you take the other view of free speech that says,
    "You have to make a venue where speech works,"
    that requires having an aspiration.
    It's not just, "Be more open and connected."
    It's not just, "Talk to anyone you want to."
    It's actually, "We're trying to build a conversation here,
    and if you don't look like you're building a conversation
    then you don't belong here."
    That's a very hard kind of mental shift.
    That's not necessarily a bad thing,
    but if we're giving that much power to a private company,
    we better hope it knows what it's doing.
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