harassment hate speech misogyny TROOOLLLL!! twitter

Twitter CEO on trolls and abusers: "We're going to start kicking these people off right and left."

A sad day for trolls.
A sad day for trolls.

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo has frankly admitted that his company has done a terrible job of dealing with trolls and abusers. And he’s promised to do better, declaring that Twitter would “start kicking these people off right and left.”

In a remarkably candid note to concerned staffers, obtained and posted online by The Verge, Costolo was blunt about Twitter’s failure to protect its users from harassers:

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.

He’s got that right.

Costolo went on to accept personal responsibility for this failure:

I’m frankly ashamed of how poorly we’ve dealt with this issue during my tenure as CEO. It’s absurd. There’s no excuse for it. I take full responsibility for not being more aggressive on this front. It’s nobody else’s fault but mine, and it’s embarrassing.

And he pledged to go after the harassers much more aggressively:

 We’re going to start kicking these people off right and left and making sure that when they issue their ridiculous attacks, nobody hears them.

In a followup note, he again took personal responsibility for the problem, and assured staffers that his promise to boot the trolls and harassers would be more than an empty declaration:

[T]he truth that everybody in the world knows is that we have not effectively dealt with this problem even remotely to the degree we should have by now, and that’s on me and nobody else. So now we’re going to fix it, and I’m going to take full responsibility for making sure that the people working night and day on this have the resources they need to address the issue, that there are clear lines of responsibility and accountability, and that we don’t equivocate in our decisions and choices.

Let’s hope he lives up to this promise. Facebook made a similar promise to crack down on hate speech in 2013, but hateful sexist and racist material is still posted regularly on that platform with no repercussions.

And everyone who has tried to report harassment and abuse on Twitter knows how hard it is to get Twitter to taken any actions against harassers. And even when harassers’ accounts are banned, the bans are often temporary, while those who are permabanned can simply start up new accounts to continue their harassment and abuse.

Costolo’s notes came in response to a discussion on an internal message board about feminist writer Lindy West’s recent Guardian article and This American Life segment dealing with the harassment she’s gotten on Twitter. Costolo made clear that he’s acutely aware of the media coverage and criticism of Twitter’s lackluster attempts to deal with the trolls who so often turn Twitter into a kind of “hate amplifier.”

In other words, Twitter is responding to this problem because the targets of Twitter harassment and abuse are talking about their experiences publicly.

The “don’t feed the trolls” approach that is so often advocated by those who try to minimize and/or excuse the harassment does not in fact work; indeed, “not feeding” trolls encourages them, by making clear they will face no repercussions for their abusive behavior.

“Don’t feed the trolls” FEEDS THE TROLLS.

Everyone who is legitimately concerned about trolling online owes a debt of gratitude to Lindy West and the numerous other targets of harassment — most of them women — who have spoken up publicly about their experiences, putting themselves at risk of even more harassment.

And we owe a debt of gratitude as well to Jaclyn Friedman and the others at Women, Action and the Media who also put themselves at risk when they stepped forward to assist Twitter in dealing with its harassment problem.

Let’s keep the pressure on Twitter and on other online platforms that have been used as hate amplifiers. That’s the only way to ensure that the people running these platforms actually do anything to curb the hate.




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7 years ago

But threats are very clearly against the law. And when someone makes a threat against the police they’re arrested right away. I don’t think the lack of action when women are harassed online has anything to do with concerns about free speech. I think it’s an extension of rape culture. When men hurt women, women are blamed for it, met with indifference or assumed to be lying for attention or money.

Argenti Aertheri
7 years ago

“While I’m at it, has the First Amendment ever been cited correctly in an argument in the history of time?”

Idk about recent cases, but I know it caused more than a few people headaches when they were told that nope, Vietnam protesters had a right to say what they were saying.

Story for the “SJWs want to kill free speech” people — I was president of my HS’s GSA my senior year, and we did the Day of Silence every year. My junior year, when the previous president was training me in navigating the red tape that is called “getting anything done” some jackasses decided to host a “Day of Loudness” to slap anti-gay shit on fucking EVERYTHING. The principle called the prez down, she grabbed me, and we got asked if we wanted the school to treat it as a hate “crime” issue. We said no, just give them the punishment for slapping stickers on people without their knowledge or consent — cuz seriously, you don’t do that, we had permission for our posters and unless asked for an answer why we weren’t talking, kept our mouths shut (literally and figuratively, we had cards to hand out to answer that question).

So yeah, believe it or not trolls, we are actually okay with you saying stupid shit. Just not threatening shit, or assaulting people… or citing your frozen peaches when we say “well then, someone’s an asshole”.

This was also my first real lesson in the line between “ignore bullies”/”don’t feed the trolls” and “punish them for breaking the rules” — ignore the political nature of their stickers, punish them for breaking the variety of rules they broke about what they can put where and when.

I like my brother’s form of trolling — threats of shoving things up his ass get met with “don’t threaten me with a good time!” And variations on “that’s gay” frequently get “it’s only gay if your balls touch” (don’t ask me!) Troll the trolls! …wait, that’s what we do here isn’t it?

7 years ago

I remember being in kindergarten, and there were two little kids who picked on me a lot. It was low-level stuff (because we were five), but it really hurt my feelings (because I was five). I had heard from my parents, as well as from various educational TV shows, that if someone was doing something mean to you, you should go get an adult.

Well, I was an obedient child, so I went to my teacher and reported that kids X and Y were calling me names. They were put in time out. As soon as they were out, they started calling me mean, because I told on them and got them put in time out.

I went and told my teacher about this, as well, and she just kind of sighed at me and informed me that nobody likes a tattle-tale.

I was super, duper confused and hurt, and didn’t report the kids making fun of me again.

I can’t help but feel that this has been the same way the powers-that-be have kind of approached internet harassment. “Look, they’re brats, but if you just decide to shut up and take it, it’s a lot less work for us, and they’ll be less mad at you. Okay?”

But, for everyone you ban, a certain number will give up. Being banned is a pain if you are an established user, and even if you aren’t, creating a new account involves a small amount of work that not everyone will want to do just to troll someone.

^ This. I was a moderator once on a woefully inadequate chat platform, and we had a troll logging in specifically to spam awful things to the channel host. This dude was tenacious, and was logging in at pretty impressive speeds with new burner accounts, spamming new abusive chat messages, with equally insulting user names. For about 10-15 minutes I sat, banhammer at the ready, booting the troll out the door as soon as he came in, probably twenty or thirty times. While it was a massive pain in the butt, the other chatters were actually cheering me on and it became almost a game, with the troll looking more pathetic each time. “Come on, bro, I can do this all night. It takes you a new email address, site registration, confirmation emails, and IP address changes to keep coming back. It takes me two clicks to ban you. I can do this alllllll night.”

While the site still definitely needed a lot more moderation options, the troll did eventually give up. tl;dr – The bare minimum is a whole lot more effective than nothing.

That said, I think Catalpa’s idea about the waiting period is brilliant and would significantly clean up Twitter—if nothing else, it would drastically improve the notifications/personal impact on the targets of harassment.

7 years ago

That idea by Catalpa is fantastic, having a setting where people whose accounts aren’t of a certain age can’t contact you combined with a more effective and widespread banhammer would discourage all but the most committed dickheads and those committed dickheads would find their volume significantly diluted.

7 years ago

So kind of like how two bullies organised themselves and showed up here on a clear vendetta and instead of dealing with the bullies you publicly took away the mod duties of a long standing commenter (and main target of the bullies), and drove many others away due to your unwillingness to deal with the situation.
Kind of like that.

Christina Nordlander
7 years ago

I just want to agree with what everyone said about bullying. I was told “just ignore them”, too. Definitely among the worst advice I’ve ever received.

Never teach your children that.

7 years ago

I was one of the kids in elementary school who would tell on ANYbody. I was the sixth of seven in my family, and the teachers and administrators all knew my parents.

True, I did have lunch in the foyer of the principal’s office more often than a well-behaved child normally would, but I didn’t have much of a problem otherwise.

And nobody ever told me not to be a tattle tale. They would have gotten a ration of static from my parents.

7 years ago

I think that ‘trolling’ has changed, and as others have pointed out what is happening that is so terrible is actual harassment and bullying, not any kind of ‘traditional’ idea of a troll.

I go on to ROK now and then and tell them how fucked up they are and I get told ‘it is satire’. NO it fucking isn’t, it is spiteful and nasty, and the comments tell you exactly how those ghastly articles are being received by regulars.

Same with Twitter – it isn’t done with any sense of irony or humour, or ambiguity. It is just nasty and vicious and people who do it should suffer some consequences.

Sadly I cannot say that about ROK as they can put whatever vile trash they like on their website.

7 years ago

RE: bullying

I have a speech problem, so I’ve been bullied before. I have found that you have to understand the motivation of the bully to know what works on them. A bully that’s just looking to rile you up out of a desire for your attention or because they’re bored themselves can usually be successfully ignored. Bullies that are looking for a sense of power will feel an empowered sense that they’ve taken away their victim’s voice if their victim ignores them. Bullies that are taking sadistic glee in causing discomfort will assume you’re sulking and that they’ve gotten your goat if you ignore them.

Most adults don’t want to believe how cruel kids can be, so they tend to assume that all bullying is attention-seeking. Hence all the “well he just likes you/she just wants to be your friend” comments. Sometimes that’s true with very young kids, however most kids figure out that being mean doesn’t win them friends by the end of elementary school. This trope’s existence well into high school, or worse, adulthood, is rediculous.

Threatening bullies with social consequences only works when you can win, or at least make the bully miserable enough. Reporting to teachers/authorities only works if there are swift, predictable consequences the majority of the time (Or at least the bully believes there will be). If there isn’t, the bully is prolly busy enjoying the fight. Twitter take note.

Responding to the bully with violence can also work, provided that, again, the victim is strong enough to win, or at least cause the bully substantial misery. Problem here is that there’s a real risk of the victim becoming a bully them-self if they do fight back hard enough. However sometimes this is the only last resort left in dealing with a bully that has social support.

Boring bullies can be hard to accomplish. But if you don’t reward them with fear, or anger, or with silence, or by providing entertaining interaction, if you can manage consistent bored indifference, sometimes you can side step the bully’s goals, and then you’ve won.

My .05 🙂

7 years ago

Also for those saying, oh hey, the ignoring the trolls situation works on a particular type of schoolyard bully who is about attention, I can say, working as a teacher of various ages of children, that having an authority shut that down works just as well. Going up to a child who is needling the other children because they can’t handle not being focused on and giving them that spotlight of attention away from the class and asking them if they thought their behavior was appropriate or asking if there’s anything they want to talk about with direct focused attention works really well in shutting down “attention seeking” “teasing”. As does explaining the context of slurs (to older kids) or bringing the use of slurs to their parents’ or principal’s attention (for younger kids).

Ignoring any type of troll doesn’t usually work and in fact, I think a culture that saw a group of “minor” “attention-seeking” trolls posting stuff that was alienating to non-white-tech-men as harmless or a respectable part of our culture that should be supported as a bit of fun was what really gave a lot of cover for harassment and bullying in the same way that a teacher ignoring loud slurs because “oh they’re just looking for attention” means that the class will soon be lost to everyone repeating those slurs or turning on the kid who dared get upset by them.

And I can support this with sites like the chans which were written off for years as just harmless little trolls and now has bred some of the worst offenders in terms of internet bullies.

It’s ironically enough a classroom management issue. Moderators need to actively intervene so that bullies don’t take over and dominate and shut down slurs and other bad behavior at first infraction before it catches on with the other kids. Big services like Facebook and Twitter are just cheap and don’t want to invest in that large number of moderators and the training to keep them from becoming one more axis of frustration and silencing as that would cut into their bottom line and make profits drop like a brick for a quarter.

7 years ago

the same way that a teacher ignoring loud slurs because “oh they’re just looking for attention” means that the class will soon be lost to everyone repeating those slurs or turning on the kid who dared get upset by them.

You do realize that the advice to ignore certain bullies was aimed at the bullied victim and not at the teacher/authority figure?

7 years ago


Yes. My point is that there are two forms of advice for two different forms of interaction: “Bullying” and “Teasing”. My point is that a method of calling it out and having an authority intervene and shut it down works on both, so this weird distinction of “oh hey, just ignoring the latter works great but the former not so much” is unneeded and actually leads to a culture where the former has a pre-built excuse and thus is more likely to occur.

It is my opinion that having the victim ignore “they’re only looking for attention” trolls because it “works” there is advice that only aids those doing an extremely antisocial behavior and encourages more direct “I want to hurt you psychological” bullies to try their fare. Whereas a thing where moderators move in and tell the “but I was only joshing around types” to lay off on their “social experiments to get a rise out of someone” prevents the more intense forms of bullying.

And it is further my opinion that the internet’s randomly odd fond nostalgia for “more harmless trolls of day’s past” and tolerance of that form of trolling is exactly how we got to a position where we have this dark underbelly of really nasty and violent bullies who feel entitled to push anyone they don’t like off the internet. I mean, just look at the -chans which were tolerated for years because “oh, it’s just a bunch of trolls trying to get a rise out of people by posting “shocking stuff”, just ignore them” and now it’s this huge toxic pit of white supremacists, violent MRAs, and criminally abusive behavior such as trying to drive people to suicide, swatting, and child pornography.

My basic point is that I don’t think there’s a split between these two issues, but rather they are parts of the same spectrum and have the same solution (consistent, well applied moderatorship and a culture that refuses to accept or celebrate it).

And this seems to be backed up both as my experiences as a young bullied trans* ace kid and as a teacher in later life. As others have noted, ignoring is dangerous. It says that random slurs or targeting a specific person because they are different or are a dude who shows emotions is a-okay and it says that the bullied or targeted person’s safety and opinions don’t matter. It also doesn’t work. When bullies have targeted you for a reason they’ve decided has made you less than, they will continue whether or not you ignore them. In fact, they will increase the more you ignore them because there are no consequences. The people I’ve known who got their bullies to stop either went to an authority or went ballistic one day and physically struck back to such a level that the bullies became afraid of them (which is not to endorse violence, active teacher or moderator or authority intervention is a better option, especially as a method in adulthood where defending yourself as a minority member can lead to jail time or a rewriting of your death to fit narratives). And similarly as a teacher, I’ve seen the kids who are well-meaning but very needy and keep needling the students around them and finding that annoying them leads to a form of attention. When left alone, when the other students ignore, the needy student continues unabated because they are still not getting the attention they so desperately crave and the other students feel worse and worse and are more likely to eventually respond in an extremely negative manner that would hurt the initial needy child’s feelings. Again, moderator, teacher, or authority intervention solves this by reminding the honest needy child or “attention troll” that their behavior is negatively impacting people and that it is not appropriate and giving them more focused attention that makes them think about the impact of their behavior on others.

Basically, tl;dr point is that ignoring doesn’t really work for any form of troll and intervention by a higher authority works for every type of troll, so there’s no real need for a separate distinction to forgive the trespasses of regular ol’ cheeky trolls and separate them from the crimes of “weal twue bullies”.

Especially since someone saying “outrageous things for a rise” usually involves making a place an unwelcoming place for a minority member.

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