Eighteen months after Gamergate, and with the groundbreaking verdict in R v. Elliott – Toronto’s so-called “Twitter trial” – still reverberating online, Twitter Inc. announced today the formation of the Twitter Trust & Safety Council, a foundational body aimed at ensuring that every one of its 320 million users feels safe expressing themselves in 140 characters or fewer.
The Council, which will advise Twitter’s developers on all forthcoming products, policies, and programs, will comprise more than 40 organizations and experts across 13 regions to start, including Canadian video blogger Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency, LGBT organization GLAAD, New York-based Jewish organization the Anti-Defamation League, the UK Safer Internet Centre, Brussels-based European Schoolnet, and Indonesia’s Wahid Institute.
“With hundreds of millions of tweets sent per day, the volume of content on Twitter is massive, which makes it extraordinarily complex to strike the right balance between fighting abuse and speaking truth to power,” Twitter wrote in a Feb. 9 blog post announcing the program.
However, “to ensure people can continue to express themselves freely and safely on Twitter, we must provide more tools and policies,” the company acknowledged.
Though R v. Elliott wasn’t mentioned in the announcement, it’s only the most recent high-profile example of a certain segment of Twitter users, known colloquially as trolls, using the platform for online abuse. In the precedent-setting case, which ended on Jan. 22 with Ontario Court Judge Brent Knazan dismissing all charges, artist Gregory Alan Elliott was accused of harassing Stephanie Guthrie and Heather Reilly to such an extent that they feared for their lives.
(That Elliott was harassing Guthrie and Reilly, occasionally using “vulgar and sometimes obscene” language to spread views that could be “offensive or wrong” was not in question, Knazan noted; only whether it warranted conviction.)
“Gamergate,” meanwhile, refers to a 2014 campaign that began with insults and death threats against Los Angeles-based independent game developer Zoë Quinn before extending to others, including Sarkeesian, who hosts a video game-centric web series, Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, and is regularly attacked by trolls angered by the series on Twitter.
Guthrie, a feminist activist who has given a TEDx talk about her experiences, declined to comment on the creation of the Trust & Safety Council when contacted by ITBusiness.ca, while Sarkeesian’s representatives said she would not be available for an interview.
The council’s creation isn’t the first time Twitter has admitted its own shortcomings when it comes to preventing online abuse. In a widely circulated memo last year, CEO Dick Costolo took personal responsibility for the company’s track record:
“We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years,” he wrote. “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,” Costolo continued. “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.”
Halifax-based Internet, technology and privacy lawyer David Fraser called the Trust & Safety Council’s creation “a good thing” and “consistent with what Twitter has been talking about in terms of re-examining how they deal with abuse on their platform.”
“Certainly Twitter is a private entity… they can decide how they want to run things, and they’ve generally been almost overwhelmingly in favour of free expression, in a way that at least has been unsatisfactory to many of their users,” Fraser told ITBusiness.ca. “It makes sense for them to want to make sure that as Twitter grows, it’s a welcoming place for the people they would want to have on the platform, which in fact includes a large number of women who have I think increasingly been feeling marginalized, not listened to, and abused – not by Twitter, but by users on the platform.”
Fraser said it also makes sense that the founding members of the council are themselves veteran Twitter users, indicating that any solution proposed will be consistent with what Twitter has come to represent for its audience.
Saadia Muzaffar, CEO and Head of Partnerships for TechGirls Canada, which supports Canadian women in the science, technology, engineering, and math sectors – all fields with rampant sexism – has a slightly different take.
“While it’s a great step by Twitter to form the Trust and Safety Council, and have it be built around real users – it is hardly worth commending for a company that has heard rallying cries of help by its most ardent users for years,” she said. “We need to hold these corporations accountable for a tangible and quick turnaround on their improvements – enough cookies have been handed out for feel-good promises and admissions of deficiencies that remain un-actioned for inexcusable lengths of time.”
A full list of the organizations involved can be found here.