Five years ago, popular protests across the Arab world seemed to show Twitter’s power as a democratising force, as young people in Egypt and beyond used social media to take on their rulers. Many of these with newfound freedom were living under repressive Sunni regimes.
Twitter has long championed free speech, even the unpalatable, but realises the concept has gone feral. The company says it’s closed 125,000 accounts since mid-2015 for threatening or promoting terrorism. The shutdowns primarily relate to support for Islamic State – the militant group seeking to create a Sunni caliphate within the region.
Twitter’s historically resisted government censorship pressure, fighting back since 2012 with transparency reports. It cites concerns over mass surveillance post-Snowden. In part that’s window dressing as Twitter (and other platforms) have always been invaluable for open source intelligence gathering.
Five years ago a Cray supercomputer was able to network-analyse 24 hours’ of Twitter and its users globally in less than 60 minutes. It’s only recently that Twitter has publicly warmed to Big Brother, not least over the drip of bad PR in the fight against terror. “Our experience is that Twitter has been very cooperative, and that cooperation has grown – I say only half facetiously – after ISIL threatened to kill their CEO,” FBI Director James Comey said last July. Apple, by the way, is currently being bruised over the locked iPhone of a dead terrorist.
A new academic paper looks at the efficacy of Twitter’s shutdown of English-language terror accounts. It seems to be working. The number of repeat offenders is diminishing, along with a massive reduction in follower counts. But the social media battle is not over. Supporters are hijacking dormant Twitter accounts and some IS supporters are using alternatives, such as Telegram, a Russia-linked messaging app with self-destruct timers and end-to-end encryption.
The real rubs for Twitter though are the far tougher existential issues lurking closer to home. Its latest earnings and user growth are lacklustre, legal copyright complaints have jumped 89%, and it still remains confusing for the uninitiated. US staff morale has plummeted, four top executives have resigned, and the share price is down 75% from peak. UK employees also feel the pain – their remuneration packages include significant stock options priced way above current valuations.
However the elephant in the room is trolling – abuse levelled at users by others on the service. It may be death threats, random insults or prolonged abuse. Twitter’s getting serious and establishing a trust and safety council.
Victims feel Twitter has done too little to stop trolling. The latest onslaught on Stephen Fry has prompted him to quit, again. “It’s quite simple really: the room had started to smell. Really quite bad,” Fry explained. Other high profile users are resigned to abuse as the price to pay for a free platform promoting their interests. Feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, who has dealt with abuse, rape and death threats has pinned a simple demand on her profile page: “Please send all hate mail to your mum.”
Hollyoaks actor James Sutton summed up the quandary neatly. “Twitter, and indeed social media as a whole, used to be somewhere people came to share experiences, tell jokes, voice opinions, promote stuff and connect with one another. What it has become is a vicious, angry place of bullying, harassment, narcissism and joyless ‘he said/she said’ shite. If it’s not people point scoring by trying to run the most offensive account, it’s journalists, trawling Twitter trying to find a story…”
An astonishing leaked email from Twitter a year ago revealed how slow they were to tackled abuse. In a mea culpa the then chief executive Dick Costolo said: “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years. It’s no secret and the rest of the world talks about it every day. We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day.”
There was a simple reason for the lethargy. From CEO down Twitter long believed its own hype of being the “free speech wing of the free speech party”. It’s a naïve 21st century conceptualisation of the First Amendment. Although the notion works in the chaos of a Tahrir Square it doesn’t work where recourse to civil and criminal laws are available.
It’s the dichotomy at the heart of Twitter’s trolling troubles, and a point admitted by its general counsel in April. “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,” Vijay Gadded said.
For Twitter, there’s another dichotomy that may be more difficult to explain. It’s the legalese that shields the company from users and undermines the promises of protection. It’s the one they’ve crafted in contractual small print – buried page-layers down on a web browser and difficult to find on the mobile app. It’s the “Parody, commentary, and fan account policy” where Twitter insists users “are often in the best position to resolve disputes amongst themselves”.
Ramming it home, elsewhere Twitter’s 3,500-word Terms of Service is downright disheartening in its stance: “You understand that by using the Services, you may be exposed to content that might be offensive, harmful, inaccurate or otherwise inappropriate…”
Perhaps we need to accept there is no silver bullet to rid cyberspace of trolls. Stephen Fry now describes the Twittersphere as a pool that “too many people have peed in…” Social media may simply have found its yin and yang.
That provides little succour to the countless victims of abuse, but soap actor James Sutton thinks he’s found the route to salvation. “The whole thing is just abhorrent. And it’s bollocks,” he said in his final tweet. “I’m off to re-connect with the real (?) world, have some meaningful conversations and do some actual living instead of worrying about the content of a free app downloaded to my mobile phone…”
Pete Norman is Ben Pimlott Writer in Residence at Birkbeck.