Twitter's harassment fight kicks into a higher gear

Holding her sign high in the air, Jessie Woletz had a simple message for Twitter: "#StopTheHate." 

"It's really hard to trust Twitter right now," said Woletz, standing with a handful of protesters Friday night outside Twitter's headquarters in San Francisco, pleading for the social network to curtail harassment on the social network. "They say they're going to be doing something about it. I hope it will be better than what it is."

Twitter's harassment fight kicks into a higher gear

Jessie Woletz demonstrates her displeasure with Twitter during a protest outside the company's San Francisco headquarters Friday night. 

Terry Collins/CNET

That's the goal as Twitter on Monday officially began enforcing its updates to reduce the amount of abusive and hateful content on the platform. Among the changes are prohibitions against users' names or bios in their accounts promoting violence and hate; the potential for permanent suspension of accounts threatening violence or serious physical harm and death; and a ban on accounts featuring hate symbols and images. 

But the company also acknowledges that it's efforts will remain a work in progress.

"We'll evaluate and iterate on these changes in the coming days and weeks," Twitter said in a blog post Monday.

The updates came as scheduled, according to Twitter's safety calendar, which specifies when certain changes to halt abuse will take effect. At users' urging, the social network last year vowed to curb chronic harassment and hate speech aimed at women and minorities, even as it struggles to balance its declaration of being a platform for free expression.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey's promises of changes to the company's harassment policies and more transparency on how it will protect its 330 million users from abusive behavior have been met with mixed emotions.  

"They are taking their responsibilities quite seriously. Twitter realizes they have a series of problems on their hands, and they are facing a lot of pressure," Stephen Balkam, CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute and a member of Twitter's Trust and Safety Council, said Saturday.  "I think this has been a year of playing catch-up for the company, and they've come under scrutiny like never before." 

Twitter's harassment fight kicks into a higher gear

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Meanwhile, as the hate lingers, Twitter has made a number of changes throughout the year. In July, for instance, it said it had disciplined 10 times more accounts than it did in 2016. In October, Dorsey said in a tweetstorm that more changes were on the way, responding to a #WomenBoycottTwitter protest urging folks to not tweet for a day to force Twitter to improve how it vets content. That came on the heels of #MeToo, the hashtag campaign inspired by the allegations made against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, which sparked an international movement encouraging women from all walks of life to speak up about sexual assaults and harassment.

Last month, Twitter temporarily suspended its verification process after drawing outrage for giving its official blue-and-white check mark to accounts of noted white supremacists.

Everything in context

Twitter said Monday it will have a range of options for enforcement, with a focus on context and behavior. For example, the company said that although some tweets may seem abusive on the surface, they may not be "when viewed in the context of a larger conversation."

Also, Twitter said that responses will depend on the severity of a tweet and the user account's previous record. "For example, we may ask someone to remove the offending tweet before they can tweet again," the company said on its hateful conduct policy page. "For other cases, we may suspend an account."

Given the gray areas the company sees in tweeting, it promises to acknowledge if it goes too far in some cases.

"In our efforts to be more aggressive here, we may make some mistakes and are working on a robust appeals process," the company said in its Monday blog post.

Balkam, a member of Twitter's safety council, an advisory group of more than 60 organizations and experts working to help prevent abuse on the social network, said the policies are a lot clearer than a year ago. 

Now, it's a matter of executing them, he said.  

"The real issue is going to come over the next six to nine months as to how they use these policies in terms of human review, and also how their machine learning, their algorithms and their artificial intelligence are going to pick this stuff up and determine how accurate it is," he said.

After an hour of protesting on Friday, Woletz, a 34-year-old San Francisco resident who lives not far from Twitter's headquarters, said she'll be back if she thinks the company isn't doing enough to eradicate the hate. 

Woletz cited a series of graphic anti-Muslim tweets and videos retweeted by President Donald Trump on Dec. 1 that Twitter didn't remove. The company said the tweets somehow didn't violate its policies, despite being widely condemned by critics.

"I want Twitter to stop the doublespeak," she said. "They need to do a lot more than they've done."

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