Twitter has a troll problem. It has had from the beginning, really. But it's been particularly loud this month, thrown into sharp relief with the sickening attacks on Robin Williams's grieving daughter, Zelda. Twitter's response has been tepid at best; as far as squashing trolls goes, it's the most we can ever expect.
Twitter's initial response to the high-profile harassment of Zelda Williams, which included both verbal abuse and pummelling her with photoshopped images of her deceased father, was a vague vow to do, um, something.
That 'something' finally materialised late yesterday, when Twitter revealed a new addition to the company's support page that promises to remove images of a deceased user at the request of a verified family member or a "person authorised to act on the behalf of the deceased". All of which, of course, comes with one key caveat:
When reviewing such media removal requests, Twitter considers public interest factors such as the newsworthiness of the content and may not be able to honour every request.
In other words, Twitter will only go so far when it comes to reacting to trolls. That's because the service will almost always err on the side of free speech (not a bad thing!), and the price of free speech in this very specific context is people posting terrible things on the internet.
What Twitter could do
There's been quite a bit of speculation over what exactly Twitter's vice president of trust and safety, Del Harvey, could have been alluding to in her response to the heartbreaking attacks on Zelda Williams:
We will not tolerate abuse of this nature on Twitter. We have suspended a number of accounts related to this issue for violating our rules and we are in the process of evaluating how we can further improve our policies to better handle tragic situations like this one. This includes expanding our policies regarding self-harm and private information, and improving support for family members of deceased users.
The move to block images of the deceased on request is one concrete step. But as we've already mentioned, Twitter also withholds the right not to comply. It also only addresses one very narrow version of trolling.
[Note: Twitter did not respond to repeated requests for elaboration on any potential preventative measures.]
There are some controls already available to users. As Twitter exists now, you can report people that fit any of the categories below, and, should the situation call for it, can block them.
The problem with Twitter, though, is that blocking a user doesn't do much other than prevent them from explicitly following you (with that particular account). Which, sure, there's something to be said for blissful ignorance, but that doesn't help much when you're dealing with real, imminent threats.
The next step available to you — should something like what happened to Zelda Williams (or any of the other number of Twitter users suffering daily harassment) occur — is the option to report abuse. It involves a fairly extensive report:
The problem with these two options (your only two options!) is that they're reactive. You've already been hurt, and yes, it's important to try to prevent that from happening again. But why should horrible photos of hanging victims (or rape GIFs or revenge porn or any of the internet's other abominable creations) be allowed to reach a grieving daughter in the first place?
If Twitter really wanted to stop trolls at the source, it's not without options. As Jérôme Segura, a senior security researcher at Malwarebytes, explained to us over email:
One thing that Twitter could do to fight this issue is to make the registration process more thorough. Other companies such as Facebook have really good algorithms that can detect abnormal users.
For example, the same IP address should not be allowed to register multiple accounts repeatedly. Before a new account can be created, the user should also have to validate their account through a valid phone number (which once again should be limited to the number of validations allowed).
In addition to actual registration restrictions, fear itself can be a wonderful deterrent. Twitter could choose to collaborate with law enforcement on the more extreme cases. When a user reports a damaging, persistent troll, Twitter theoretically could procure the necessary information (which it may or may not already be collecting) to bring the trolls to justice.
Should Twitter put both of those restrictions in place, not only would internet abusers be forced to attack using their actual — or, at the very least, traceable — identities, but they'd likely ultimately be facing legal retribution in exchange for their sick game.
And none of that is ever going to happen.
Twitter's power as a platform would be devastated
By limiting Twitter accounts to actual, traceable identities, you'd be discounting half of what both sets it apart as a tool with the potential for a massive amount of good and what its users love about it.
Be it whimsical, satiric, absurd, gossipy, what have you, faceless "parody" and character accounts are a hugely important part of Twitter's identity. Twitter's most trite critique in its early days was some form of no one cares what you had for breakfast, but that sounds absurd looking at what the site has become. Twitter isn't about you and your trivial ups and down (at least, not if you're using it right). It's a storytelling tool. And there's nothing else quite like it, largely because real, actual users and their real, actual personas are only half the story.
But perhaps most importantly, Twitter's more than just a means for lighthearted commentary. It has the potential to effect total social upheaval.
Privacy and online anonymity are a big deal to users in places like the United States, but those issues become more important by orders of magnitude in countries with oppressive regimes. Twitter has proven itself to be a wildly important tool during times of political strife, helping to facilitate the Iranian protests in 2009 and the Arab Spring in 2011. A service that lets virtually anyone sign up (all Twitter requires is a functional email address) and enjoy free speech is a rare, precious commodity in many parts of the world, and the fact that Twitter both offers these qualities and is widely used by people in all parts of the world is an extraordinary thing.
Ignoring the concerns over user privacy, pulling back that veil of total anonymity would be devastating to Twitter's potential as a tool of protest, of disseminating information that would otherwise be withheld, and even giving people an outlet to create remarkable work without fear of judgment.
That's not even to mention the fact that actively limiting IPs per user would set Twitter up for some less than appealing legal ramifications, both for itself and its users. If Twitter doesn't know who's using its service and where they're using it, there's a certain degree of plausible deniability that has the potential to both save Twitter's back, as well as your own. Which is great when you're using its power for good and decidedly less great when you're sending threatening, emotionally traumatising images to the people they could most harm.
Which is why the trolls are never going away
For better or worse, Twitter isn't changing any time soon. In fact, the site has consistently defended its status as a champion of free speech, saying first in 2011:
Some Tweets may facilitate positive change in a repressed country, some make us laugh, some make us think, some downright anger a vast majority of users. We don't always agree with the things people choose to tweet, but we keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content.
One of our core values as a company is to defend and respect each user's voice. We try to keep content up wherever and whenever we can, and we will be transparent with users when we can't. The Tweets must continue to flow.
Human beings have the capacity for some absolutely atrocious, monstrous acts. What happened to Zelda Williams on Twitter — and what happens to countless others on the service on a daily basis — is proof of that. And the fact that this particularly loud minority of cretins is given a platform on which to stand truly is unfortunate.
But just as with the idea of free speech in general, Twitter can't take any active steps to cut its abusers off at the source without limiting the rights and freedoms of countless others. Others who, without Twitter, might not have any voice at all. Because as long as Twitter continues to give a voice to the far more deserving many, the few trolls — thankfully — haven't won yet.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby