Britain has a massive problem with trolling on Twitter.
High-profile figures who speak out — especially women — are subjected to torrents of anonymous abuse on the social network. The British government has even taken steps to legislate against the issue, threatening jail sentences of up to 2 years for Twitter trolls.
It’s simply a fact of life that if you want to want to speak out about certain controversial issues (notably feminism), you will be harassed as a result.
But this might be about to change.
The Verge has got a hold of an internal memo from Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, in which he says he is taking “personal responsibility” for trolls and harassment on the social network. Costolo told employees that he’s “ashamed of how poorly” the company has dealt with the issue.
The company has struggled with harassment on the platform for years, and rolled out a long-overdue update for its tool for reporting abuse late last year. Costolo’s comments, however — leaked ahead of the company’s earning call tonight — reveal the company is actively “[losing] core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day.”
Now, Costolo promises Twitter is going to “start kicking these people right and left,” and “making sure when they issue their ridiculous attacks, nobody hears them.”
“Everybody on the leadership team knows this is vital,” the CEO added.
The endemic trolling and abuse on the platform is a frequent media talking point in Britain. Trolls have even been jailed in the UK for their actions, as was the case of Peter Nunn, who harassed a female MP on the social network. In another incident, Twitter troll Brenda Layland was “driven to suicide” in October 2014 after she was outed as being behind abusive messages sent to the parents of missing schoolgirl Madeleine McCann, and was subsequently trolled by others.
Of course, it’s not an exclusively British phenomena. Robin Williams’ daughter Zelda was driven from the platform after receiving a torrent of abuse in the wake of her father’s suicide. Costolo’s comments show that these instances of users being forced off the site are not just isolated incidents.
And a fresh light has been shone on the issue in recent months as a result of the social movement known as “Gamergate.” Ostensibly a campaign for ethics in video games journalism, it has been accompanied by a wave of abuse of female game developers and critics. The Verge’s report highlights a post by American feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian showing one week of the misogynistic abuse she receives on the website (Warning: Very strong language).
When British singer FKA Twigs (real name Tahliah Barnett) was dating Robert Pattison, she was subjected to a torrent of racist abuse on Twitter. And this isn’t unusual. But it hopefully won’t be the case forever. By accepting personal responsibility, Costolo’s comments suggest an imminent — and far stronger — crackdown on trolls and abuse on the social network we’ve ever seen before. And now they’re in the public domain, there will be even more pressure to act.
Those who’ve been on the receiving end of trolling and harassment on Twitter have expressed optimism about Costolo’s statements and the prospect of a change in atmosphere on Twitter.
Prominent British feminist activist Caroline Criado-Perez has been heavily abused on the social network — two people have even been jailed for it. She told Business Insider that she’s “really pleased to see Twitter taking this problem seriously. While it’s always been clear that individual twitter employees understood the issue, there has often been a sense that those at the top wanted to sweep it under the carpet a bit.”
“It’s great to see Costolo exhibiting this level of leadership,” Criado-Perez adds. “I hope it will make a big difference.”
Abi Wilkinson is a journalist for the Daily Mirror who’s also been harassed on Twitter. She told Business Insider “it’s encouraging that the CEO has taken responsibility,” and that “it’s right that widespread trolling and abuse puts a lot of people off using Twitter.” She says the recent updates to the block feature are a “step in the right direction,” and is “optimistic that they will come up with new ways to tackle the problem.”
Here’s the memo Costolo sent on Feb 3:
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.
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.
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.
Everybody on the leadership team knows this is vital.
And here’s a subsequent follow-up he sent:
Let me be very very clear about my response here. I take PERSONAL responsibility for our failure to deal with this as a company. I thought i did that in my note, so let me reiterate what I said, which is that I take personal responsibility for this. I specifically said “It’s nobody’s fault but mine”
We HAVE to be able to tell each other the truth, and the 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.