Twitter CEO says online abuse is driving users away from Twitter

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo wrote in an internal memo that harassment and abuse on its platform is driving users away from Twitter. Mr. Costolo took personal responsibility for Twitter's hesitance to deal with abusive users, writing, "It's nobody else's fault but mine."

Jeff Chiu/AP/File
Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said that the company's hesitance to deal with online abuse is driving users away from Twitter. Here, the company's San Francisco headquarters are shown.

It’s no secret that Twitter can be a platform where pretty nasty abuse is dished out.

Last year’s Gamergate tempest, which began, ostensibly, as a call for “ethics in video game journalism” but descended into a witchhunt across social media, showed that Twitter is often slow to respond to abusive or threatening messages sent across its network.

Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo put it bluntly: “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years,” he wrote in a company memo obtained by tech site The Verge.

Mr. Costolo noted that harassment and trolling – deliberately trying to offend someone online in order to provoke an angry response – are driving users away from Twitter.

That last point may be particularly important to Twitter. Costolo says in his memo that Twitter will begin banning troll accounts more aggressively because he feels it’s right to promote a more civil discourse on Twitter. But the company is also scheduled to deliver its fourth-quarter earnings report on Thursday, and while Twitter has doubled its revenue each quarter since going public a year ago, the number of people using the service has remained almost flat.

Costolo’s memo implies that sluggish user growth is due in large part to online harassment: “We lose core user after core user,” he wrote, “by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day.”

Costolo circulated the memo at Twitter in response to a story written for The Guardian, and shared on This American Life, by feminist writer Lindy West. Ms. West was frequently tormented on Twitter by users who didn’t agree with her writing, and one user even created a fake profile of her father, who had recently died, and used it to make cruel comments about her. West contacted the user behind the profile, who – perhaps surprisingly – apologized for what he had done, telling West that he realized “there is a living, breathing human being who is reading this,” and that he was “attacking someone who never harmed [him] in any way.”

West acknowledged in her article that Twitter, like other platforms, is a place where users are free to speak their minds. But she also speculated that the company could be doing more to curtail harassment, especially that stemming from racism and sexism.

Costolo apparently agrees. “We're going to start kicking these people [trolls] off right and left,” he wrote in the memo, “and making sure that when they issue their ridiculous attacks, nobody hears them.” The CEO also took personal responsibility for the company’s reluctance to deal harshly with Twitter users who behave abusively toward other users. In December, Twitter improved its system for reporting abuse, but Costolo says that wasn’t enough. “I take full responsibility for not being more aggressive on this front,” he wrote. “It's nobody else's fault but mine, and it's embarrassing.”

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