Why Twitter Is Still Risky Business

Twitter unveiled multiple new features this week aimed at curbing trolling, threats and harassment.

As other social networks have improved anti-troll features, Twitter has remained a laggard, so the trolls have made Twitter their social network of choice. You’ll notice that in the past couple of years, nearly all the worst stories about online harassment have really been about Twitter, not about social networks generally.

Famous people such as Ashley Judd, Lena Dunham and Iggy Azalea have been relentlessly hounded by vicious trolls. Many have left Twitter altogether–some temporarily; others permanently.

Gamergate targets, including Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian and Breanna Wu, are bombarded constantly and heavily with the most horrific, personal and threatening attacks you could image.

Still other celebrities, such as Louis CK, Alec Baldwin, Charlie Sheen, Courtney Love, Ashton Kutcher and James Franco, have left because they don’t like their OWN Tweets. It’s too easy on Twitter to blurt out missives that come out wrong and offend. It’s hard to really communicate complete thoughts in 140-character chunks.

Which brings us to the point of this column. In addition to being silenced, shamed and horrified by trolls, Twitter stalkers and harassers, there’s also the issue of reputation. The two can be related.

And what they have in common are trolls and haters and the inadequacy of the tools on Twitter to deal with them.

As a professional, leader, manager and (whether you like it or not) representative of your company, you should takes steps to make sure your reputation won’t be permanently damaged by trolls and haters on Twitter.

Here’s what you need to know.

Twitter’s new features (and why they’ll fail)

Twitter’s new anti-troll, anti-harassment features are being widely accepted as big improvements, with reports saying that Twitter is finally getting tough on trolls. In fact, the opposite is true.

Here are the new features and why they’ll be ineffective.

1. Algorithmic filtering of messages.

The biggest change announced is that Twitter now algorithmically finds threatening or harassing tweets, then automatically hides them.

The feature is actually a step backwards, and harms the cause of troll control and reputation management. The reason is that the harassing message is hidden only to the target. So if a troll or group of trolls launches into a barrage of reputation-damaging tweets against you, everybody sees it but you.

This “solution” perfectly illustrates Twitter’s dismissive attitude toward harassment. No matter what happens, they can’t seem to take harassment–or the victims of harassment–seriously.

This head-in-the-sand solution shows that Twitter thinks the problem with trolls is that you know about them, not that they exist. According to Twitter, the problem is you, not the trolls. So they give you blindfolds and earplugs so you don’t know what’s being said about you.

It’s like calling the police to report an armed stalker on your lawn, only to have the cops close your curtains, pat you on the head and say: “There, all better now.”

Contrast this with Google+, which also algorithmically filters for trolling, harassment and spam. The difference is that Google hides the messages from everyone except you–and the troll. The troll still sees his comment and is falsely led to believe others can see it, too, but nobody else sees it. The messages are flagged and dropped into an area you can view as an option. Then, you can un-flag the messages if you want them back into public view. Or you can delete them and/or block the commenter.

Let me repeat the most power part of all this: You delete the troll’s comment.

Trolls are impossible to stop on Twitter, but easy to stop on Google+.

2. Broadening the definition of “threats.”

Twitter’s old policy was to take some kind of action against the accounts of users who “directly” threatened violence against other users, as in “I’m going to shoot you.” Now, the policy has been broadened to indirect threats as well, as in “Somebody should shoot you.”

This change is an improvement but has little bearing on reputation management.

3. Temporary locking of abusive accounts.

When Twitter users report threatening tweets, Twitter can now lock that account (make it stop working and make tweets invisible) until the troll enters a phone number, or until Twitter writes them a sternly worded message–up to a maximum of 12 hours. Once the phone number is added or the troll agrees to behave, the account goes back to normal.

The purpose of the phone number is to make it less convenient for trolls to have multiple Twitter accounts.

This works for casual or accidental trolls who are concerned about the future of their Twitter accounts. But real trolls create dozens or hundreds of fake accounts, each of which takes a few seconds to create, and they can flood Twitter with harassment messages and false information.

More to the point, Twitter won’t take action about a coordinated attack on you or your company’s reputation. Threat of violence is the only metric that triggers action. Trolls can still call you a racist, accuse you of crimes, lie about your company or whatever they like and Twitter’s phone number requirement will not be used.

Twitter won’t do anything about it; and they don’t give you the tools to handle it yourself.

4. Allowing private messages from people you don’t follow

Twitter announced a new feature in the privacy menu called “Receive Direct Messages from Anyone.”

In the past, there was no way to get direct messages (DMs) from anyone who you weren’t following. Now, after you select this checkbox, you can.

The reason this was a troll issue is because when somebody is intent on harassing a Twitter user, one common tactic is to harass the people they interact with. So if you’re a target of trolls and publicly message another user, they can become a target as well.

From a reputation-management perspective, the inability to privately message others on Twitter is one of the biggest threats. It forces you to tweet a public message, which the trolls can see. And now they can @-mention your prospective employees, partners, customers with reputation-damaging hate speech about you and your company.

The new DM feature is both poorly communicated and also nearly worthless.

First, many prominent Twitter users are confused about the value of private, direct messages. Most say that if strangers can DM them they’ll be subject to harassment.

But even if that’s true, blocking ends it and the stress of being harassed publicly is non-existent.

Second, it’s opt-in. And hardly anybody is going to opt in. The feature should have been opt-out, meaning that they should have just turned it on, and anyone who doesn’t like the feature can turn it off.

Because it’s both misunderstood and opt-in, nothing has really changed. You still can’t DM people who don’t follow you on Twitter. You still have to send a public message. The trolls can still read and act upon what should be private messages.

Again, contrast this with Google+, where you can privately message any person or group of people. The trolls can’t see who you’re talking to and what you’re saying and can’t target your co-workers, employees, partners, customers or anyone else as part of their harassment of you. And if you get a private message you don’t like, blocking is instant and total.

Twitter’s new anti-troll, anti-threat, anti-harassment features are mostly just more condescending and ineffective half measures, which leave Twitter as still the riskiest social site for trolling, harassment and harm to reputation.

I understand the free-speech argument, to which Twitter is committed. And I also recognize that Twitter is fine for most people.

But if you’re a professional who wants to be active on social media over the months and years ahead, and want to protect yourself from the reputation-damaging trolls, Twitter is the single most risky social network, and I don’t recommend it. 

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