A barrage of hateful, racist, and misogynistic tweets about black comedian and “Ghostbusters” star Leslie Jones on Monday has renewed the debate about how Twitter should deal with hate speech.
Twitter addressed Ms. Jones’s plea first with a tweet Monday from its chief executive, Jack Dorsey, for Jones to personally message him. Later, the social media platform announced that it has “taken action” on many of the accounts that targeted Jones because it prohibits their abusive nature. Yet the controversy shows the recurring difficulty Twitter has found offering a platform for free speech while not becoming a venue for hate.
“We realize we still have a lot of work in front of us before Twitter is where it should be on how we handle these issues,” a Twitter spokesperson said in a statement shared with The Christian Science Monitor on Tuesday. “We rely on people to report this type of behavior to us, but we are continuing to invest heavily in improving our tools and enforcement systems to prevent this kind of abuse.”
Once thought of as the “free speech wing of the free speech party” (as the general manager of Twitter UK described the company in 2012), Twitter adopted harsher guidelines against abusive speech in 2015, following the online harassment of feminists in the gaming industry. In its guidelines, Twitter writes it does not tolerate behavior that, among other things, harasses users. Users are prohibited from abusing or harassing others, or directly attacking or threatening others on the basis of race, ethnicity, and gender. Twitter can temporarily lock or permanently suspend any accounts that engage in such behaviors.
On Monday, months of criticism about an all-female cast of "Ghostbusters" from fans of the franchise and online trolls gave way to racist, misogynistic, and graphic tweets about Jones. Film director Paul Feig intervened, starting the hasthtag adopted by thousands of followers Monday – #LoveforLeslieJ – but not before Jones implied she was so hurt she would no longer use Twitter.
In addition to Mr. Dorsey encouraging Jones to reach out to him, Twitter said in the statement it shared with the Monitor it has “taken action” against many of the accounts Jones and others reported.
Ever since it was created, Twitter has been forced to confront the conflict between its “anti-censorship mythos” and “the practical realities of running a for-profit business,” as Motherboard, the online magazine, wrote in January, in an article that traced the history of Twitter’s rules.
Through 2013, Twitter adopted a permissive free-speech attitude. “It has explicitly concluded that it wants to be a platform for democracy rather than civility,” wrote Jeffrey Rosen in 2013 in the New Republic.
But a series of controversies that year and the year after involving vitriolic online harassment forced Twitter to reconsider its position. Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist activist who questioned how women were depicted in video games and comics, said she was repeatedly threatened with rape. Caroline Criado-Perez – a feminist activist and blogger, who was instrumental in the Bank of England’s decision to put a non-royal woman on the banknote – was also the target of abuse. In light of these events and other instances of celebrity harassment, Twitter slowly began to adjust its policies.
Vijaya Gadde, general counsel at Twitter, announced the change in attitude in an op-ed in The Washington Post in April 2015.
“It is not our role to be any sort of arbiter of global speech. However, we will take a more active role in ensuring that differences of opinion do not cross the line into harassment,” wrote Ms. Gadde. “Freedom of expression means little as our underlying philosophy if we continue to allow voices to be silenced because they are afraid to speak up. We need to do a better job combating abuse without chilling or silencing speech.”
In January, Twitter created a Trust and Safety Council, composed of 40 organizations, which includes the Anti-Defamation League, the Internet Watch Foundation, and the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. The council provides input on Twitter’s automated products, policies, and programs that monitor hate speech and other forms of abuse.
The council was immediately dubbed "Orwellian" by some free-speech proponents.
Gadde, general counsel at Twitter, foresaw the difficulty not only for Twitter, but also the internet will have in resolving this conflict.
“We know that our efforts to protect both the safety of our users and their right to express themselves freely will create tensions that can be difficult to resolve,” she wrote. “But those difficulties simply acknowledge the importance of those underlying values. These are tough issues that challenge Twitter and the Internet generally....”