The Case for Transparency at Twitter

Charlie Warzel, Buzzfeed:

In the span of a few days [Martin Shkreli] 1) direct-messaged [journalist Lauren] Duca to invite her to be his date at the inauguration, 2) changed his Twitter bio to read “i have a small crush on @laurenduca (hope she doesn’t find out),” 3) created a collage of images of Duca as his Twitter header, 4) changed his profile picture to a doctored image of Duca and her husband, where Shkreli’s face is photoshopped over Duca’s husband’s. Duca, who has over 130,000 Twitter followers, posted Shkreli’s bio and images around 11 a.m. Sunday. They went viral instantly and Shkreli was banned in just over two hours. “The Twitter Rules prohibit targeted harassment, and we will take action on accounts violating those policies,” a Twitter spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.

To Twitter’s credit, the company responded quickly to Duca’s plea and the subsequent tweets about Shkreli’s behavior. But Twitter’s vague, one-sentence justification for the suspension — the result of its long-stated policy not to comment on individual accounts for the privacy of its users — highlights a broader concern for the company in 2017: Twitter, despite its attempts to police its platform, appears unwilling to engage in the necessary transparency surrounding the harassment of its users.

The entirety of this story — Shkreli’s harassment in front of an audience of hundreds of thousands, Twitter’s response, and the ongoing abuse targeted towards Duca from Shkreli’s followers — is symptomatic of far deeper and more egregious concerns in the way we approach harassment in a primarily written form.

When I was young, I — like many of you, I’m sure — was taught that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. I’m sure the sentiment behind this is earnest, but reality shows that it is complete bullshit. The tweets and messages directed towards Duca aren’t mere words; they’re a call to action to a wide audience. The laws against online harassment are inconsistent state-to-state, and federal laws require a high level of evidence which, due to the way tweets and emails can be interpreted,1 isn’t always easy to prove.

Even if that’s resolved, the intent behind this abuse won’t go away. There’s a deeper cultural problem in the way that threats against women and people of colour, in particular, are perceived. The only way to make progress here is to listen to, and empathize with, those most affected.

  1. Frequently by a white, male prosecutor↥︎