Under pressure, Twitter prepares to extend reporting abuse to all users

Under increased scrutiny, Twitter will be extending the ability to report tweets to all of its hundreds of millions of active users around the world.

A statement from Twitter, emailed to the BBC and GigaOm, urged users to report abusive behavior and violations of the relevant policy and Twitter Rules using an online form and shared plans to “bring the functionality to other platforms, including Android and the web.” Twitter hasn’t shared timelines for that extension yet, but aggrieved users in Britain and beyond should gain the ability to flag tweets with a couple of taps eventually.

report-tweet-button

Twitter users have been able to report violations and abuse for years, with decisions by the service’s Safety team as tickets or law enforcement interest comes in. Twitter’s Safety team, headed by Del (@delbius) Harvey, has been quietly, professionally handling the ugly side for many years.

Adding reporting to individual tweets, however, is a relatively new change that was not announced on the Twitter blog or through the @Safety or @Support accounts.

Here are the relevant details from Twitter’s FAQ:

You can report Tweets that are in violation of the Twitter Rules or our Terms of Service. This includes spam, harassment, impersonation, copyright, or trademark violations. You can report any Tweet on Twitter, including Tweets in your home timeline, the Connect or Discover tabs, or in Twitter Search.

To report a Tweet:

  • Navigate to the Tweet you’d like to report.
  • Tap the ••• icon to bring up the off-screen menu.
  • Select Report Tweet and then one of the options below.
  • Select Submit (or Next if reporting abuse; see below for details) or Cancel to complete the report or block the user.

Reporting options:

Spam: this is the best option for reporting users who are using spam tactics. Please reference the Twitter Rules for information about some common spam techniques, which include mass creation of accounts for abusive purposes, following a large number of users in a short time, and sending large numbers of unsolicited @replies.
Compromised: if you think the user’s account has been compromised, and they are no longer in control of their account, select this option, and we will follow up with them to reset their password and/or take other appropriate actions.
Abusive: for other types of violations, including harassment, copyright or trademark violations, and impersonation, select this option. When you select “Next’”, you’ll be taken to a form where you can complete and submit your report to Twitter.
Block account: instead of reporting a user, you can select this option to block the user. If you block a user, they will not be allowed to follow you or add you to lists, and you won’t see any interactions with the user in your Connect tab.

Icebergs ahead

Twitter has successfully scaled the ability to flag media to all of its users. They’ve kept the Fail Whale from surfacing by vastly increasing the capacity of the service to handle billions of tweets and surges in use during major events. They’ve already rolled out tweet reporting to Twitter to iPhone users. Now, they’ll simplify reporting of abuse tweets for everyone.

There may be hidden tradeoffs in adding this function, as Staci Kramer pointed out on Twitter: previously available options, like “tweet link,” “mail link” and “read later” aren’t in the new version of Twitter’s iOS app.

What may prove more difficult than adding this function to other official apps and the Web, however, will be adding the human capacity to adjudicate decisions to suspend or restore accounts.

Twitter will be doing it under increasing scrutiny and a fresh wave of critics who are taking the company to task for being slow to respond to threats and abuse. More than 18,000 people have signed a petition at Change.org demanding that Twitter provide a an abuse reporting button. The petition was filed after a stream of rape threats were directed at Caroline Criado-Perez on Twitter for 48 hours.

Criado-Perez, a freelance journalist and self-described feminist campaigner, was in the public eye because of her successful efforts to keep pictures of women on paper money. She began receiving abusive tweets on the day that the Bank of England announced that author Jane Austen would appear on its newly designed £10 note.

The signatories on the petition were asking for a function that already exists for the millions of Twitter users that access the service on an iPhone, as the head of the social networking service’s United Kingdom office tweeted earlier today, responding to heated criticism in the British press.

To mollify critics and offer a users a better experience, Twitter staff will need to proactively detect waves of abuse, aided by algorithms and adjudication systems, and make judgements about whether tweets break its stated policies or represent threats that must be reported to law enforcement.

“I don’t know what proportion of posts are abusive, nor do I know the volume of complaints handled by Twitter staff and their response time, which are obvious factors in how and when abuse reports are handled,” commented veteran journalist Saleem Khan. “If there’s a problem with complaint-handling, Twitter needs to examine its processes and staffing. That said, if abuse and/or non-responsiveness by staff are perceived to be a problem, then it is a problem.”

To state the obvious, this will be an ongoing headache for Twitter.

Like other social media companies, Twitter has been navigating deep, troubled currents of censorship, privacy and suspensions in recent years.

Creating systems that offer fair, efficient moderation and adjudication of reports is a conundrum that code alone may not be able to solve. That challenge is extended by the presence of organized campaigns of humans and bots that game governance systems by flagging users en masse as spammers, leading to suspensions.

That may well mean that Twitter, like other social networks with millions of users, will need to expand its safety team and train the rest of its public-facing employees to act as ad hoc ombudsmen and women, as aggrieved users inevitably turn their ire upon staff using the network. They’re well positioned to do so, perhaps better than any other social network, but the service is inevitably going to face tough decisions as it operates in countries do not have legal protections for freedom of expression or the press.

As Rebecca MacKinnon, Ethan Zuckerman and others have highlighted, what we think of as the new public square online is owned and operated by private companies that are setting the terms and conditions for expression and behavior on them. Giving users the capacity to report abuse, fraud or copyright infringement is a natural feature for any major website or service but it comes with new headaches. If Twitter is to go public, however, it will need to develop more matures to handle being a platform for the public.

“The question remains,” commented Khan: “What rights and powers do we delegate to private, for-profit, unregulated platforms that increasingly mediate the majority of our discourse, and where is the line that we draw in that deal?”


Editor’s Note: I sent Twitter a series of questions regarding the new reporting function on Sunday morning. On Sunday night, Twitter declined to comment further than the statement they have released. On Monday afternoon, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo responded to tweeted queries. Following are the questions I posed over email. If you have answers, feel free to comment or contact me.

When was this added? Was there an official blog post or tweets from staff, @safety and @support about it?

What’s the timeline for it rolling out to all users? Will Twitter for Windows and BlackBerry and get it?

Will it be added to the API, so that TweetBot and TweetDeck users, along with other clients, can use it after updates?

Will Twitter increase staffing at Safety and Support to handle an increase in reports? To what levels?

Will there be designated ombudsmen or women?

Will there be any transparency into the number of tickets received regarding abuse or someone’s status in the queue?

Will Twitter release aggregate data of abuse (or spam) flagging? How will Twitter deal with false positives or organized/automated campaigns to flag users or tweets?

Will there be any consequences for users that repeatedly abuse the ability to flag people or tweets for abuse?


Postscript

On August 3, Twitter responded with an update to its rules to help address abusive behavior, including extra staff to handle abuse reports.

“It comes down to this: people deserve to feel safe on Twitter,” said Twitter’s UK lead Tony Wang and Del Harvey, senior director for trust and safety, in a blog post.

We want people to feel safe on Twitter, and we want the Twitter Rules to send a clear message to anyone who thought that such behaviour was, or could ever be, acceptable.”

The updated rules apply globally. “As described in the blog post, this was a clarification of existing rules — we discussed harassment in our help center in connection with abuse, but this makes it explicit in the rules as well,” said Twitter communication lead Jim Prosser, reached by email.

Wang also tweeted an apology to the women who have been targeted by abuse on Twitter.

“I personally apologize to the women who have experienced abuse on Twitter and for what they have gone through,” he said. “The abuse they’ve received is simply not acceptable. It’s not acceptable in the real world, and it’s not acceptable on Twitter.”

So yes, there are limits to free speech on Twitter.

What are they? Well, that’s the sticky wicket. The updated rules now include a section that Harvey said already existed. Twitter “actually always had that as a note on our abusive behavior policy page; we just added it directly to the rules,” she tweeted.

Targeted Abuse: You may not engage in targeted abuse or harassment. Some of the factors that we take into account when determining what conduct is considered to be targeted abuse or harassment are:
*if you are sending messages to a user from multiple accounts;
*if the sole purpose of your account is to send abusive messages to others;
*if the reported behavior is one-sided or includes threats

This was “no real addition, just [a] clarification,” tweeted Harvey. “Twitter “just added the explicit callout to our preexisting policy under the abuse & spam section.”

There is no functional difference in how Twitter’s Safety team will now assess abuse reports, she further clarified.

“We’ve been working on making the reporting process easier for users & clarifying our policies.”

4 Comments

Filed under article, journalism, social media, Twitter

4 responses to “Under pressure, Twitter prepares to extend reporting abuse to all users

  1. Pingback: Twitter responds to complaints, will make it easier to report abusive tweets | WiredPen

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