Twitter just announced a new tool for reporting harassment to the police. For a service that admits it sucks at dealing with trolls, this looks like a good step at first glance — if you ignore the fact that it’s a responsibility-dodging, spineless fix that is highly unlikely to help anyone, besides helping Twitter cover its arse. This is a PR stunt, not a solution.
“Making it easier to report threats to law enforcement,” the blog post announcing the new tool says. Great! Except it doesn’t.
The new tool means that if you’re getting threatened or harassed on Twitter, you can get a summary of your complaint emailed to you. That’s it. That’s the whole service offered. This is literally just a service that generates a summary of your complaint. All it does is save people the .5 seconds it takes to screenshot complaints to send to police.
You’re still responsible for forwarding that email to the appropriate authorities. Twitter won’t send it along for you or take any steps to make sure law enforcement prioritise or pay attention to the complaint in any way. So what does this tool actually do? Nothing, other than give Twitter evidence that it encouraged people getting harassed to take the matter to the appropriate authorities.
And if those authorities do decide to look into the threat, they still have to go through the usual channels to receive additional information about the harasser from Twitter.
I asked Twitter whether it was planning to work with law enforcement to bulk up this tool, and whether it planned on contacting law enforcement to alert them to particularly aggressive threats directly. “We don’t have anything to share beyond the content in the blog post. Our guidelines for law enforcement (linked in the blog post) explain what private user information Twitter has, and how authorities can request it,” a spokesperson told me.
Now, Twitter is in a tough spot about harassment. If someone reports an abuser and Twitter suspends them, they can just make a new account and start spewing hate again. That renders Twitter’s harassment reporting tool essentially useless. And because it’s easy to sign up for Twitter using fake or burner info, it’s not like there’s an easy way for the service to trace abusive accounts.
If Twitter takes more stringent measures like restricting how many accounts can sign up per IP address, blocking abusive IP addresses, or requiring real-name information for registration, that will neuter Twitter’s importance as a tool for political dissent and pseudonymous speech. It’s a trade-off that Twitter is understandably reluctant to make: It would fundamentally change the value of the service.
At the same time, if Twitter continues to make flaccid gestures like this, its harassment and troll problems will undoubtedly continue.
There is middle ground to be explored between castrating Twitter’s capabilities as a free speech machine and introducing measures that actually counter abuse. Twitter could, for instance, employ proactive abuse moderators. These moderators could cooperate with appropriate law enforcement agencies and help people getting threatened make contact with police, not by giving them a copy of their complaint but by actually setting up contact. These abuse moderators could keep tabs on IP addresses known to spawn more than one abusive account.
This isn’t just Twitter’s problem. Most, if not all, major law enforcement agencies are horrible at taking online threats seriously. I recognise that this won’t be as easy as Twitter simply deciding one day that it’s going to help people getting abused receive attention from police.
But Twitter should be actively, publicly attempting to engage law enforcement about the severity of these threats, and it should not pat itself on the back for continuing to put all the onus on the person getting abused to seek out help.
Illustration: Tara Jacoby