Technology First Look

Twitter takes further steps to crack down on hate speech

The company announced Tuesday that it has begun taking new measures to crack down on abusive speech, including preventing people who have been banned from creating new accounts and removing certain tweets from search results.

This photo illustration shows the Twitter logo reflected in the eye of a woman in Berlin in 2013.
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After years of fielding criticism for its response to harassing content, Twitter has announced plans to crack down on hate speech and permanently ban abusive users.

The company said Tuesday that it would make several changes to the platform, including a move to bar those whose accounts have been repeatedly banned from creating new ones. That effort could potentially bar abusive “trolls,” users who seek primarily to instigate feuds and mock other users, from repeatedly resurfacing on the site under new monikers. Other changes include hiding offensive content from conversation threads and searches.

Since its founding just over a decade ago, Twitter has struggled to curtail hate speech and abuse on its site while trying to promote free speech. During the divisive 2016 election cycle, that hate mounted as Twitter saw an uptick in anti-Semitic and other abusive content.

The company has acknowledged that it moved slowly to address those initial concerns and the subsequent spike in hateful content during the election. Now, executives plan to move forward with the new site policies to take action against harassment.

“We stand for freedom of expression and people being able to see all sides of any topic,” Ed Ho, Twitter’s vice president of engineering, said in a statement. “That’s put in jeopardy when abuse and harassment stifle and silence those voices. We won’t tolerate it and we’re launching new efforts to stop it.”

The company said it will also focus on refining search results to largely omit sensitive or blocked tweets, and will also collapse “low-quality” replies in conversation threads that may contain offensive material. Last summer, it allowed a greater number of users to apply for verified accounts, which would separate users from online trolls or imposter accounts.

For those who want to see certain controversial tweets or follow users who post sensitive content, the material will remain available on the platform. Meanwhile, users who have complained about such content will see the offensive tweets pop up less when searching topics and browsing through hashtags.

The site’s new policies may help create a common ground between protecting free speech and making Twitter an inclusive, safe platform. By allowing users to still express their opinions largely unfettered to followers or those who seek them, but giving others who do not want to engage with such content the ability to easily bypass it, Twitter is attempting to straddle the line between preserving both.

The move comes after more than a year of financial uncertainty at the company. While Twitter’s competitors such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat have rolled out new features and grown their users and ad sales, Twitter has lagged. While abusive content has cropped up on several platforms, some, like Facebook, have taken a stricter approach to censoring it – a decision some observers say could have helped to propel its growth beyond Twitter's.

Mr. Ho said that the package of changes are just the first of several that intend to curb hate speech and abusive content on the site, and that users may see additional measures taken soon.

“With every change, we’ll learn, iterate, and continue to move at this speed until we’ve made a significant impact that people can feel,” he said.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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