Category Archives: journalism

4 tips for social media optimization on Facebook from Robert Scoble

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NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen has been trying to trick Facebook’s algorithm by starting his updates with “You guys! Exciting personal news: I’m moving to New York!” and “Big news in my personal life. I’m engaged!” and “I have some exciting personal news. A new job!”

What Rosen is experimenting with here is social media optimization (SMO), or the art and science of getting your updates seen on Facebook and other platforms. In 2014, SMO is still something of a dark art, but in an age when people are using social media to discover news, getting seen there is now as important to media, marketers and public officials who want to find immense audiences online as search engine optimization has become over the past decade.

Without this hack, Rosen says, “Facebook won’t show my posts to nearly all my subscribers.”

When they are shown, they get good engagement. The hack puts them in front of people who never received a thing from me, despite subscribing to me.

Robert [Scoble] is convinced that’s because I used some humor and sounded like a person. But it isn’t. It’s because I used some idiot phrases (“exciting personal news”) the algorithm responds to. That gives my posts a chance to be seen. When they are seen people engage with them. When people engage with them they are seen by more people.

Robert [Scoble] and Dave [Winer] are telling me it won’t work for long and I am sure that’s true. Meanwhile, I have many people telling me they never saw my posts and now they do.

Rosen’s tactic prompted Rackspace’s startup liason officer, Robert Scoble, a power user of social media platforms, to make several suggestions for crafting Facebook updates that get seen in the newsfeed. Here’s a short, paraphrased summary of those tips, courtesy of Robert Scoble’s comments on an update in Rosen’s feed.

1) Short, one paragraph updates often get more engagement than updates with a photo.

2) One photo in an update often gets more engagement than an update with multiple photos.

3) Including a call to action with a URL like “Click here for insight on open government, technology and society: http://e-pluribusunum.com” in an update leads to 80% more clicks.

4) Sort your friends into lists and then remove friends who don’t engage from those lists. (This is different from unfriending them.)

I’m both personally and professionally interested in this advice: I have 129,000 subscribers to my public Facebook updates but am quite certain that the vast majority never see what they subscribed to when they clicked the “Like” button. While the rare Facebook update blows up, many are just never seen.

Questions for you:

1) Have you tried these techniques? If so, what came of it?

2) What other SMO tips do you use?

3) Do you use Facebook lists?

Two cautionary notes

First, just as blackhat SEO leads Google to penalize people for gimmicks, Facebook could flag pages and profiles that overuse them, leading to account issues.

Second, marketers, social journalists and community managers that find success with SMO experiments should take note of a recent Pew Research Center survey on social media and the news, the source of the graphics on this page, which found that “visitors who come to a news site through Facebook or search display have far lower engagement with that outlet than those who come to that news website directly.” That means that SMO doesn’t replace SEO for publishers, or the need to create great stories and interactive content that stands on its own.

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Finally, it’s worth noting that social networks are full of people. Ultimately, the best way to “optimize” your interactions on Facebook or elsewhere is to be a human, not a marketer. Meaningfully communicating with other humans is going to require a different strategy than crafting headlines and URLs that highly relevant to search engines.

Hat Tip: Post by Jay Rosen.

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What responsibilities does Facebook have to share great journalism?

This past week, I wrote about Mile Hudack’s frustrated Facebook update about Vox and the general state of the media  on Facebook, along with many others, and then posted an edited version on Tumblr, which then hit Mediagazer, the Pew Research Center’s daily briefing and the Nieman Lab’s weekly digest of the week in news. It all felt a bit meta and unexpected for a short piece of quick analysis. What follows is an edited version of that initial update.

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Before reacting to Hudack’s update, I’d found and shared a great feature on the passage of The DATA Act over on Facebook, after reading Matt Yglesias’s reply to Hudack, an advertising product manager at Facebook. That’s not uncommon: I discover great posts, analysis, research and even new data on Facebook frequently in 2014, both shared by friends and family and on various lists I’ve built. I’ve found that a lot of important news will find me, but not all of it, so I intentionally use other methods to discover it, from Twitter to RSS to Google News to reading print magazines and newspapers, listening to NPR and watching the PBS Newshour. I think about social media and the news differently than the average, though, and I use Facebook and Twitter differently than other folks, too, sharing public updates across multiple platforms much more frequently than the average user. That means you should take the following with a grain of salt or two.

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Hudack took the newly launched Vox Media to task for not producing more stories like the one about The DATA Act, a historic open government bill that’s now law, as opposed to a story about jeans.

I’m sympathetic to his frustration: I’ve followed and written about the DATA Act for three years, during which time I saw negligible mainstream coverage of it, much like the current lack of coverage regarding the bipartisan FOIA Reform Act, which passed the House of Representatives unanimously this spring, despite the miserable state of Freedom of Information Act compliance in the federal government.

Vox’s jeans story, Yglesias points out, has been shared four times as much on Facebook as the one about how a bill became law in 2014, which suggests that what’s popular on the world’s biggest social network is a result of decisions its users are making, not the media site that originated them. Reasonable people may differ on this point.

I’m on the media producer side of this equation, given my work, which makes me much more sympathetic to Vox’s side of the debate, along with the situation that faces many other media outlets. To Hudack’s point: yes, there’s a lot of dreck in the vast number of media outlets publishing today, from cable to broadcast to online. There’s also fantastic work from a number of outlets that Hudack didn’t list, many of which can be found attached to Pulitzer prizes and nominated for data journalism awards:

Here’s what Atlantic Media senior editor Alexis Madrigal said about it:

“My perception is that Facebook is *the* major factor in almost every trend you identified. I’m not saying this as a hater, but if you asked most people in media why we do these stories, they’d say, ‘They work on Facebook.’ And your own CEO has even provided an explanation for the phenomenon with his famed quote, ‘A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.’ This is not to say we (the (digital) media) don’t have our own pathologies, but Google and Facebook’s social and algorithmic influence dominate the ecology of our world.”

Like Google, Facebook can send vast amounts of traffic and readers to content producers, which creates a natural incentive to learn how to get the attention of those readers, create incentives for them to click and share, and how to game those systems as well, from search engine optimization (SEO) to social media optimization (SMO). (On the latter count, the reasons people *share* stories can differ from the reasons they *read* them, and the rate at which they share may diverge as a result.)

In both cases, however, a powerful and inscrutable, closely held algorithm is showing stories to people when they visit the platforms. On Google.com, the algorithm shows you links in response to a directed search. If you’re not anonymized, Google will personalize those results.

On Facebook’s newsfeed, the default environment that users spend time browsing every day, they’re likely to now see a mix of ads, lists, updates from brands and pages you’ve liked, and updates from close friends.

Unless Facebook users take specific steps to create a list of them, they won’t find the clean line of chronological updates from friends and family *to* friends and family that they enjoyed back in 2007.

Today, even if we enjoy and benefit from interaction on the platforms, we’re very much living in Facebook’s world, on its terms.

If a director of advertising products for Facebook wants there to be better journalism online, in general, here’s a suggestion: as Facebook builds more mobile products like Paper and develops its online product more, it could also consider partnerships with news organizations on content and revenue. That might make some publishers uncomfortable or balk, but others would experiment. (It sounds like Liz Heron might already be exploring some of those possibilities.)

My colleague at the Tow Center, Andy Carvin, commenting on my initial Facebook post, suggested that Hudack’s career and perspective shouldn’t be viewed only through the prism of Facebook:

Andy Carvin: Mike isn’t director of product at fb. He actually works on ad products for fb. And I know where his frustration is coming from – he founded blip.tv, which became just another content site after he sold it, but prior to that was one of the Net’s first bastions of citizen journalism. He’s also been posting for months about the sorry state of online reporting about Ukraine and other international crises. So I totally get where he’s coming from. Even if fb is driving a lot of content providers to lowest common denominator content, it seems unfair to put this on his shoulders. And ultimately, it’s still the content providers who choose to publish stuff they think will get the most eyeballs, whether via fb or any other vector.

That’s a fair point, and I’m glad he added that context. There’s research from Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism for those who want to dig more.

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That said, if Facebook and its leaders wanted to do more to support investigative journalism that isn’t driven by advertising considerations and shareability on social media, the company and/or newly wealthy senior staff might consider investing a portion of the billions in revenue that Facebook is making annually in improving the supply of it.

Specifically, they might support whatever comes after the newspapers that have traditionally housed the investigative journalists that create it. For instance, they could donate revenue to the foundations that have already been investing in news startups, platforms and education (The Knight Foundation News Challenge comes to mind, but there are others, from Sloan to Ford to Gates to Bloomberg to CIMA, which has published a global strategy to support investigative journalism) or establish Facebook scholarships and build out charitable arm focused on the media, akin to Google.org. The total doesn’t have to be much, relative to the annual revenues, but even tens of millions of dollars annually would make a difference to a lot of outlets and startups.

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When speech becomes text, what happens to writing?

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I successfully put down the baby for her late morning nap half an a hour ago. After running quietly around in sock feet trying to do things while she was out cold, I sat down to answer email and messages. As I entered this post into WordPress, she awoke again.)

It’s not easy to respond quickly and at volume using one hand or thumb, though I’ve gotten much better at both over the past five months with a baby daughter.

Over that time, I’ve been struck by how good the voice recognition in iOS on my iPhone has become. I’ve been able to successfully dictate a rough draft of a long article into the email interface and respond to any number of inbound inquiries that way.

That said, neither the soft keyboard nor voice-to-text on the device are a substitute yet for the 15″ keyboard in my MacBook Pro when I want to write at length.

It’s mostly a matter of numbers: I can still type away at more than eighty words per minute on the full-size keyboard, far faster than I can produce accurate text through any method on my smartphone.

Capturing and sharing anything other than text on the powerful device, however, has become trivially easy, from images to video to audio recordings.

The process of “writing” has long since escaped the boundaries of tabulas, slate and papyrus, moving from pens and paper to explode onto typewriters, personal computers and tablets.

Today, I’m thinking about how the bards of today will  be able to reclaim the oldest form of storytelling — the spoken word — and apply it in a new context.

As we enter the next decade of rapidly improving gestural and tactile interfaces for connected mobile devices, I wonder how long until the generations that preceded me will be able to leave decades of experience with keyboards behind and simply speak naturally to connected devices to share what they thinking or seeing with family, friends and coworkers.

Economist Paul Krugman seemed to be thinking about something similar this morning, in a blog post on “techno-optimism”, when he commented on the differences between economic and technological stagnation:

…I know it doesn’t show in the productivity numbers yet, but anyone who tracks technology has a strong sense that something big has been happening the past few years, that seemingly intractable problems — like speech recognition, adequate translation, self-driving cars, etc. — are suddenly becoming tractable. Basically, smart machines are getting much better at interacting with the natural environment in all its complexity. And that suggests that Skynet will soon kill us all a real transformative leap is somewhere over the horizon, maybe not this decade, but this generation.

Still, what do I know? But Brynjolfsson and McAfee have a new book — not yet out, but I have a manuscript — making this point with many examples and a lot of analysis.

There remain big questions about how the benefits of this technological surge, if it’s coming, will be distributed. But I think this kind of thing has to be taken into account when we try to imagine the future; I’m a great Gordon admirer, but his techniques necessarily involve extrapolating from the past, and aren’t well suited to picking up what could be a major inflection point.

That future feels much closer this morning.

[Image Credit: Navneet Alang, "Sci-Fi Fantasies, Real-Life Disappointments"]

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Apple releases first transparency report on government requests for user data

Apple, one of the least transparent companies in the world, has released a transparency report on government requests for user data.(PDF). Requests from the United States of America dwarf the rest of the world — and that’s without including the ones that Apple cannot tell us about, due to gag orders and National Security Letters.

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Notably, Apple has indicated that it will join other tech companies in seeking the ability to disclose such requests:

“We believe that dialogue and advocacy are the most productive way to bring about a change in these policies, rather than filing a lawsuit against the U.S. government. Concurrent with the release of this report, we have filed an Amicus brief at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA Court) in support of a group of cases requesting greater transparency. Later this year, we will file a second Amicus brief at the Ninth Circuit in support of a case seeking greater transparency with respect to National Security Letters. We feel strongly that the government should lift the gag order and permit companies to disclose complete and accurate numbers regarding FISA requests and National Security Letters. We will continue to aggressively pursue our ability to be more transparent.”

Apple did break new ground with the report, as FT reporter Tim Bradshaw observed: it was the first to disclose requests for device data.

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The U.S. government leads the rest of the world in device data requests by law enforcement as well, though not by as wide a margin: Australia, the United Kingdom, Singapore and Germany have all made more than 1000 requests, according to the disclosure.

Be careful about what you put in that iCloud, folks.

Apple’s transparency report ends with an interesting footnote: “Apple has never received an order under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. We would expect to challenge such an order if served on us.”

For those unfamiliar with that part of the law, it has been the subject of intense criticism for years from privacy and civil liberties advocates, particularly since the disclosures of mass surveillance of U.S. telecomm data by the NSA entered the public sphere this past summer.

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What went wrong at Healthcare.gov?

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Folks, I’m going to be on the Kojo Nnamdi Show on Monday and need your help.

1) What are the best explanations of what went wrong at Healthcare.gov? This digest by Charles Ornstein is a start but I’d love more.

2) What are the best papers you’ve read about federal contracting? Where would you point people to understand how contracting works, why there are so many rules about how technology can be acquired and how this system needs to change/is changing?

Who do you think has best answered the question of “what went wrong at Healthcare .gov” amongst the national media and expert technologists?

In addition to the links above , I’d add:

What else should people read?

12/1/2013 Update: After two months of intense scrutiny, the tensions and troubles behind Healthcare.gov have been well-documented by investigative journalists at The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, ProPublica and NPR News.

No single issue led to the Healthcare.gov’s failure at relaunch on October 1. Rather, a combination of procurement problems, poor work by a key contractor, bad management skills, insularity and political sensitivity led to a bug-laden website with a broken backend.

How well is Healthcare.gov working today? Better, at least on the front-end, as detailed in an operational progress report released on December 1st. Lost in that update on the administration’s “big fix, however, was a detail released in a December 2nd post on improved window shopping at Healthcare.gov, published on the Department of Health and Human Services blog (emphasis is mine):

Over the last several weeks, we’ve made a number of changes to improve the accuracy of the “834” messages to issuers. The team, working with issuers, determined that more than 80 percent of 834 production errors were due to a bug that prevented a Social Security number from being included in the application, which in turn caused the system not to generate an 834. That bug has been fixed. Other issues related to the remaining 834 production issues have either been fixed or are in testing so that the fixes can be deployed soon.

In other words, when the Healthcare.gov marketplace launched, a single programming error meant that enrollment data being sent to insurers was invalid. That’s not just a bug: it’s a fundamental shortfall in meeting the requirements for a functional software application of this sort.

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Al Jazeera America bets on an American audience for serious journalism

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I’m watching the launch of Al Jazeera America here in DC, on Channel 107*. (No HD in this media market, from what I can tell.) It’s the biggest launch in broadcast media since Fox News, in 1996, and in media since Politico, in 2007.

Goodbye Current TV, hello Al Jazeera America.

It remains to be seen whether Americans will tune into to a 24-hour news channel that is, like Brian Stelter notes in his piece on Al Jazeera America’s approach to the news, something akin to a journalism professor’s dream, with 14 hours of news daily, documentaries and an aspiration to cover all of the U.S.A. Andrew Beaujon wrote a good primer on the Al Jazeera America launch over at Poynter, from its hiring to its talent to the big question about whether people want straight news.

At launch, I’m optimistic about Al Jazeera America’s programming, at least based upon my experience appearing on Al Jazeera English this winter. From data mining the U.S. election to covering the debates online, I met bright, professional journalists who demonstrated humor, integrity, a commitment to high standards, both technically and editorially, and a willingness to experiment with the incredible new tools that now exist for newsgathering and publishing.

I’ve long since accepted, however, that I may be an outlier in some ways. There are no shortage of Americans who watch and criticize media in 2013. Given 8 hours/day of television and the ease of a tweet or a Facebook update about what we’re watching, we’re all amateur media critics now. The fraction of that viewership who will shift their habits and tune into another channel for this kind of serious journalism isn’t something we know yet.

The modern information diet includes a huge amount of infotainment, advertorial, sports, reality TV and partisan opinion shows. When the ratings come in for Al Jazeera America, six months from now, we’ll have more of a sense of whether there is an audience for this kind of approach and programming, and what that says about us as a people.

I’ll be watching.

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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.

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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.”

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