By Daley Wilhelm
The Internet is a wonderful, terrible and powerful thing. It’s a tool, and like all tools, it can be fashioned into a weapon quite easily. Cyberbullying has and probably always will happen, especially under the ambiguous ways various harassment laws address it. In some cases, provisions for cyberbullying don’t exist at all. Twitter has often been criticized for allowing a toxic environment where rape threats are the norm on their platform.
In 2015, former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said in an internal memo, “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.”
This was in response to the incident at hand back then. Feminist writer Lindy West had been getting deluge after deluge of abusive tweets, including from one account fashioned to appear to be her recently deceased father. Around the same time, Anita Sarkeesian, known for her Games vs Tropes series was receiving graphic threats via Twitter, some of which included the names of her family and her home address.
It was a quote from West that originally prompted Costolo to admit that Twitter hadn’t necessarily been doing it’s utmost to prevent these situations.
I’m aware that Twitter is well within its rights to let its platform be used as a vehicle for sexist and racist harassment. But, as a private company – just like a comedian mulling over a rape joke, or a troll looking for a target for his anger – it could choose not to. As a collective of human beings, it could choose to be better. — Lindy West, What happened when I confronted my cruellest troll
Twitter acknowledged the abuse and made reporting accounts easier since. It would then follow that we would see less tweets like these right?
Since 2015, Leslie Jones was bullied off of the platform after a hellstorm of sexist and racist tweets targeted her in response to the “controversial” casting of an all-female Ghostbusters reboot. Ed Sheeran was run off Twitter after his appearance on Game of Thrones. This says nothing of the everyday people who routinely run into the worst the internet has to offer, compressed into a cruel and concise 140 characters.
This leads us to today’s Twitter, wherein tweeting a phone number can get your account suspended, but threatening nuclear war is just fine.
It takes a lot for an account to be suspended, and even more for a Twitter user to be banned. But last week, actress Rose McGowan’s account was suspended for violating Twitter’s policies following her public call out of Ben Affleck over his alleged complacency in Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual harassment being brought against him from upwards of twenty women.
According to Twitter, this temporary suspension was in response to her tweeting a phone number, which goes against Twitter’s policies. This 12-hour freeze on her account prevented her from tweeting, liking or retweeting. However, others were able to express their anger over Twitter’s seemingly arbitrary system of suspension.
— Jessica Chastain (@jes_chastain) October 12, 2017
— Amy Siskind (@Amy_Siskind) October 13, 2017
Eventually, this led to Friday the 13th’s #WomenBoycottTwitter wherein users showed their support for McGowan and to bring attention to the overall issue of women being harassed online. Among those who joined the boycott where celebrities like Mark Ruffalo, John Cusack, Chrissy Teigen and Alyssa Milano.
Tomorrow I follow the Women. #WomenBoycottTwitter
— Mark Ruffalo (@MarkRuffalo) October 13, 2017
I stand with #WomenBoycottTwitter. I love this platform, but it’s time to do better. See you all in 24 hours. ❤️
— Brianna Wu (@Spacekatgal) October 13, 2017
While this movement was meant to give voice to women who felt like they had been silenced by the platform’s ambivalence toward abuse, some users, including director AvaDuVernay, pointed out that this response is not often extended when similar situations affect women of color.
Calling white women allies to recognize conflict of #WomenBoycottTwitter for women of color who haven't received support on similar issues.
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) October 13, 2017
Specifically, last week Jemele Hill, a co-host on ESPN, was the latest target of President Trump’s tweets in relation to her support of the recent NFL protests. Following this, she was suspended over her tweets–not from Twitter–but from her job. Many users asked why was there no outrage over this particular instance of censorship, while Rose McGowan inspired a Twitter boycott.
— Britni Danielle (@BritniDWrites) October 13, 2017
Nuclear War is Fine
Overall, users were upset with Twitter’s history of selectively applying their own rules to who gets suspended over policy violations. To this, current Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said that Twitter needs to build trust with its users by trying to be more transparent.
👇🏼 thread. We need to be a lot more transparent in our actions in order to build trust. https://t.co/7T6aliOXmG
— jack (@jack) October 12, 2017
The whole of the thread beneath the tweet reads as Twitter’s sins: abusive users gone unbanned, Holocaust-denying bots continuing to function, and users’ personal experiences with death threats that, unlike McGowan’s tweets, were ignored by Twitter.
You have done zero to help me feel safe during 72 hours of constant threats and harassment. ZERO.
— Kelly Ellis (@justkelly_ok) October 12, 2017
not really about transparency, it's about actually enforcing these policies across the board, regardless of a user's blue check mark/fame.
— Jarett Wieselman (@JarettSays) October 12, 2017
Ya think? You also need to remove the racists, nazis, hate speech, and harassment. At every level and occupying every office.
— Tim Courtney (@timcourtney) October 12, 2017
You have men harassing women every second, a dumb authoritarian threatening lives, and white supremacists abusing people. Cool app.
— (((Jordan Roth))) (@jordanroth) October 12, 2017
when will nuclear war violate your terms of service? https://t.co/72FiiyoZ59
— rose mcgowan (@rosemcgowan) October 12, 2017
Twitter stated last month that it will not remove tweets that are considered newsworthy, this statement following Donald Trump’s inflammatory tweets toward North Korea and the question of whether or not threatening nuclear war breaks Twitter’s terms and conditions.
Just heard Foreign Minister of North Korea speak at U.N. If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won't be around much longer!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2017
Earlier this summer, the White House confirmed that @realDonaldTrump’s tweets are official presidential statements. On its face, this makes sense because Trump’s tweets are very clearly his own words. There’s been significant controversy over several issues involving the president’s twitter, including but not limited to his blocking of people who disagree with him, several accusatory tweets, and of course the infamous “covfefe” tweet.
Twitter’s importance when it comes to presidential policy was made terrifyingly apparent last month when after an aggressive tweet from Trump, North Korea stated that the United States had declared war on them, thus giving them the justification of shooting down US bombers even outside of North Korean airspace as a defensive countermeasure.
Can you declare war on another country via a tweet?
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said, “Frankly, the suggestion of that is absurd.” But why should it be? So many other declarations that impact the country have been made through Twitter, so why not this?
The state of the president’s Twitter seems to be in this weird limbo where we as citizens are simultaneously expected to take his tweets as official statements, and as just trivial tweets. They’re an uncensored look into what’s going on in our government, a unique chance to know the inner machinations of a head of state as never before. And I’m not saying that as a good thing.
Just yesterday North Korea again cited Trump’s tweets as “provocations” and stated that they would unleash a salvo of missiles on Guam should he continue.
Whatever one might think of Donald Trump’s twitter, or Twitter itself, the platform has become a staple of statement. Twitter is where one can find precisely what’s on the national conscience, a kind of global soapbox nee water cooler. Twitter is the conduit through which movements like #WomenBoycottTwitter gain attention and action. Twitter is where news breaks, where a nobody’s well-worded aside can become globally recognized and where a significant portion of us go to get informed.
But it’s also where people can face horrific rape threats. It’s where one nation can apparently provoke another into nuclear war. Twitter, like the internet itself, is a tool easily weaponized.