Two cases of Twitter abuse highlight the obscure nature of suspensions

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Two women recently reported their abuse on Twitter. The difference in how the company responded raises questions about the way it protects its users

Over the weekend pharma bro Martin Shkreli was suspended from Twitter following his interactions with Teen Vogue journalist Lauren Duca. Today, the company briefly suspended Alexandra Brodsky, a fellow at the National Womens Law Center, after she retweeted screengrabs of antisemitic abuse she received. Her abusers accounts were not suspended.

These very different cases highlight the lack of transparency in the way Twitter handles harassment. From the outside, its abuse policies appear to be applied inconsistently, with some accounts being suspended with little explanation. Critics are calling for the microblogging platform to be more accountable for its moderation decisions.

Id like to see Twitter be more open about their priorities, expectations and practices, said Stuart Geiger, an ethnographer and Berkeley PhD student who has studied Twitters approach to moderating abuse. It does seem to be haphazard.

Shkreli, an entrepreneur and hedge fund founder, achieved notoriety in 2015 when he acquired the drug Daraprim, used in the treatment of Aids and cancer patients, and hiked the cost of a pill from $13.50 to $750. He has since built a name for himself as a right-wing provocateur.

In the last few weeks hes turned his attention to Duca, a freelance writer, sending her direct messages asking her to be his +1 to Donald Trumps inauguration and changing his Twitter profile picture to a doctored image that showed him sitting with Duca on a sofa. He also made his cover photo a collage of images of Duca with the caption, For better or worse, til death do us part, I love you with every single beat of my heart, and changed his bio to refer to his small crush on @laurenduca (hope she doesnt find out).

Lauren Duca (@laurenduca)

How is this allowed @jack

January 8, 2017

Duca reposted the direct message and screenshots of Shkrelis profile, calling on Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey to help. How is this allowed, @jack, she wrote. Later that day, Shkrelis account was suspended with no public explanation.

On Sunday, Duca told Buzzfeed: I dont know how this could possibly be allowed because this is an act of targeted harassment.

The suspension of Shkrelis account follows a similar pattern to that of Breitbart journalist Milo Yiannopoulos, who was permanently banned from the platform last year for his role in the online abuse of Ghostbusters actor Leslie Jones. It wasnt until Jones publicly quit the platform following an onslaught of racist and sexist vitriol, whipped up by Yiannopoulos, that Twitter decided to act.

Twitter suspends accounts for a number of reasons, including abusive behaviour, sending spam or if the account has been hacked. These suspensions may be temporary or permanent.

Actor Leslie Jones publicly quit Twitter after a campaign of abuse by rightwing journalist Milo Yiannopoulos. Photograph: NBC/Getty Images

According to Twitters rules, a user can be deemed abusive if they harass, intimidate or use fear to silence another users voice. This includes making threats of violence, inciting or engaging in targeted abuse of others, promoting hate against others based on race, sexual orientation, gender, age or disability, and publishing the private information of others, known as doxxing.

How Twitter applies these rules, however, is less clear. The platform appears to tackle abuse in a reactive, rather than strategic, way according to how high-profile the target of abuse is. Both Yiannopoulos and Shkreli had sent messages that could be interpreted as intimidating or misogynistic before they were suspended, but Twitter only acted when they targeted users with large followings.

In some cases, the platform is blocking the victim rather than the antagonist, as happened in the case of Brodsky.

She found her account temporarily suspended after she tweeted screenshots of antisemitic abuse she was receiving. The accounts of the people who sent the abuse remained online.

Dana Bolger (@danabolger)

This weekend, @azbrodsky and I got harassing anti-Semitic tweets. When she spoke out, @Twitter suspended HER account. @JACK, how is this ok?

January 9, 2017

Brodskys account was reactivated after some of her 5,000 followers complained to Jack Dorsey and one of her friends told a journalist, who then called Twitter asking for comment.

Twitters anti-harassment enforcement is still unacceptable, she said on her Facebook page after her account was restored. Public criticism shouldnt be necessary for the company to do the right thing.

For Brodsky, Twitter is a crucial tool she uses at work. At the time her account was suspended she was in the middle of a campaign opposing the appointment of Jeff Sessions of the role of attorney general.

Twitter is a cesspool, but its a really important useful cesspool, she told the Guardian. A lot of us dont have the option of disengaging because its a powerful tool to get the work done.

These cases highlight the lack of transparency over Twitters decision-making, particularly as a key forum for public discourse and with President-elect Donald Trump now even using it to announce policy changes.

Twitter is becoming more like governments. We dont expect them to be black boxes, said Geiger.

Im a law school graduate, so I like the idea of there being public justifications for these decision, added Brodsky. It would be helpful to for us to see if Twitter is being consistent and whether the size of the platform of the target plays into the decision making.

Geiger said that abuse is particularly acute on Twitter because of the way its designed. Twitter has one of the toughest jobs among the various online platforms because of its immediacy. The same stuff that happens on Facebook doesnt get the same public reach. Twitter pushes us all together I can tweet Donald Trump if I want to. Its part of the thrill but also why it can be so problematic and dangerous, he said.

He believes Twitter might be dragging its feet over really clamping down on harassment in the way its clamped down on terrorist accounts for fear of losing too many users. Already members of the alt-right are moving to Twitter alternatives like Gab.

If you look at it from a business perspective, if they have a dip in the number of users active on the platform theyll have a dip in stock price, he said. It puts them in a tricky position.

Twitter did not respond to questions about how it decides which accounts to suspend and who is responsible for making the decisions.

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