That Twitter is plagued by harassment is a truism. Innumerable blog posts and stories have been written about the company's endless struggle against hate speech and the trolls who propagate it. Yet Twitter’s reporting process for such behavior remains opaque, and countless people who’ve been targeted by it say reports they filed with Twitter were ignored or dismissed because they didn't meet the company’s standards for harassment.
To better understand how Twitter handles reports of harassment, BuzzFeed News invited readers to complete an online survey about abuse. More than 2,700 users responded. The results suggest that an overwhelming majority of reported instances of abuse ended with Twitter taking no visible action toward the offending account.
But first, a few things to keep in mind:
Our survey was distributed primarily through BuzzFeed’s social channels, largely on Twitter and via a link in a BuzzFeed News post. As such, the 2,702 respondents are likely not reflective of Twitter’s users overall. Respondents who participated in this survey were largely English-language speakers. By virtue of the subject matter, participants were probably more likely to have experienced abuse on Twitter than the average user of the service. (That said, respondents were given an option to state that they had not experienced abuse on Twitter.) BuzzFeed News also conducted follow-up interviews with a number of respondents.
Also worth noting: We've seen evidence that Twitter occasionally takes action against tweets reported as abusive without revealing that it has done so. But this leaves targets of abuse who reached out to the company in the dark about whether their appeals for help were heard. In some instances, Twitter has publicly revealed that it deleted tweets after a high-profile outcry. Just yesterday, Binyamin Appelbaum, a New York Times correspondent with more than 40,000 followers, retweeted some particularly horrific anti-Semitic remarks that had been directed at him and copied Twitter's CEO, Jack Dorsey. Afterward, the company deleted the tweets and Dorsey notified Appelbaum of the deletions publicly on Twitter.
All this said, the responses to our survey do offer a human window into Twitter’s underbelly of abuse, providing not only harrowing examples of harassment, but data on how it is handled — or not — by the social network.
About our respondents:
Of the the 2,669 people who provided demographic information in our survey:
- 772 people (26.3%) identified as a racial or ethnic minority.
- 707 people (28.8%) identified as a member of the LGBTQ community.
Here’s the gender breakdown of the the 2,669 people who chose to answer:
- 1,817 female
- 720 male
- 58 gender fluid
- 26 transgender
- 21 agender
- 27 not listed
Of our 2,702 respondents, 1,478 (55%) said they had been the target of an abusive tweet or Twitter direct message. Of those who reported suffering abuse on Twitter, 18% said they had been harassed in just the past week, while 26% reported being harassed at some point within the past month, but not the past week.
According to survey respondents, Twitter’s most common response to an abuse report is inaction.
46% of respondents told BuzzFeed News that the last time they reported an abusive tweet to Twitter, the company took no action on their request that they were aware of; their only recourse was to personally block the offending account. Another 29% who reported abusive tweets said they never heard anything back at all. And 18% of those who reported an abusive tweet said they were told that the tweet did not violate Twitter’s rules, which explicitly forbid violent threats, harassment, and hateful conduct. In only 56 instances (2.6% of the time) did respondents say Twitter deleted the offending account, and in 22 instances (1% of the time) respondents said Twitter issued a warning to the user who’d sent the tweet. Of the 2,115 people who responded to this particular survey question, just five individuals said they were contacted by a Twitter representative to discuss the abuse they reported.
On Sept. 15, Twitter declined BuzzFeed News' request for an executive interview on the subject of harassment. In response to a Sept. 19 letter detailing the findings of our survey, Twitter's head of communications, Kristin Binns, provided the following comment:
"Safety is our top priority — we're building better tools and processes every day. We can't comment on a third-party survey, and its anonymous nature makes it impossible to verify data or corroborate response. While we know there’s still much to be done, we’re making progress toward giving people more control over their Twitter experience and to better combat abuse."
Among survey respondents, harassment was common and varied.
Over 67% of respondents described the tweets they received as misogynistic in nature. Nearly 30% reported being targeted with homophobic slurs. One-quarter said they’d been subjected to racist epithets, one-quarter reported death threats, and one-quarter reported tweets encouraging them to kill themselves. Nearly 20% of respondents reported being threatened with rape; another 20% said they’d received tweets threatening to publish their private information, photos, or videos.
Roughly one-third of survey respondents who reported receiving an abusive tweet said they reported it to the company using Twitter's abuse forms. And nearly 80% of respondents said they reported an abusive tweet directed at somebody else.
We asked survey respondents to describe the harassment they experienced on Twitter. This is what they told us:
- “Someone spread a video around of an unnamed girl taking part in perverse activities with an animal, and captioned it with my underage friend's name. It was taken down the next day, but the damage was done.”
- “Someone took a google cached but long deleted photo of me from my fb, photoshopped it on to a naked body, and posted it alongside my real name, openly calling me a dyke (I'm not out to anyone except a few very close friends). That's one instance in a series of nearly 500 abusive tweets from 50 different troll accounts (likely created by same person or few people, based on how they were posting).”
- “I get a lot of messages threatening rape, men trying to find my physical location and disseminating it so I can be raped, threats of murder, people wishing miscarriages on me, to be sent into war zones to be raped and murdered.”
- “Pictures of my family, my address, my employer, threats to 'rape this bitch with a cactus,' threats to 'take a crowbar to that pretty throat,' insinuations that I am only academically successful in a male-dominated subject because I am attractive.”
- “Lots and lots, mostly from Gamergaters. One of the worst problems is that even if I block someone, Twitter still allows them to tweet my handle, so the big Gamergate figures can still regularly send their legions of cretins to make my notifications miserable.”
- “I blocked the abuser, but after a witty retort (that was polite) and me wishing him a good day he said 'what would make his day better would be to do this' and inserted a graphic video of a jihadist chainsawing a kneeling man's head off.”
- “A serial racist, doxxer and harasser (who has been suspended once before), somehow connected my professional and private accounts, which have nothing to do with each other, posted my full name and encouraged her 30,000+ followers to go after me (some of who have offered to show up with guns). She has also started harassing my former employers as well as inviting harassment to my best friend, who isn't even on twitter. My professional field is social media and marketing, so her harassing tweets have basically held my professional account hostage as they are forever linked and visible to potential employers."
- "I had a user on Twitter stalk me, my family and friends on Twitter and offline. This user has had over 85 accounts suspended. I have all documentation to support my claims including usernames, IP addresses, reports sent to Twitter and the FBI. This person would create fake accounts with my name and others in attempts to harass. He tweeted a picture of my mothers license plate to thousands of his followers…This person is racist, homophobic and despite doxing 15 year old girls and having over 85 accounts suspended he is still allowed to have an account on Twitter where he spews hatred, racism and misogyny.”
- “My meant to be private pictures (nudes) posted for months non stop, my drivers license posted, my address posted, my work place address posted, my parents info posted, threats to kill me and my kids, photo shopped pics of me with gunshot wounds through my head and chest, inciting people to swat me, my naked pics tweeted at two workplace Twitter accounts, it goes on and on. Pedophile tweets about my kids.”
- “A picture of a person pointing a gun at me; telling me they'd bury me out back; calling me a cunt and telling me to stop talking out of my clit; posting my full name (I am anonymous on Twitter... or was)... all different people at different times. There's been more, but that's it off the top of my head.”
- “Unsolicited photos of genitals.”
- “There's so much! Telling me I deserve my rape. Telling me to kill myself. Threats of hunting me down and killing me and my mom. And tonight I was targeted by a group of trolls. I was told I asked to be raped and then that I was a total victim who faked her disabilities and should be euthanized.”
- “The site is inundated with neo-nazis. I thought of deactivating my account many times, but I didn't want them to think they could silence me. My neighbors reported trucks in front of my house in the middle of the night. I do not answer my house phone anymore due to abusive calls. A map to my home was circulated. There's nothing left of my life for them to dox.”
Though the hundreds of written responses collected by BuzzFeed News vary, a majority of them express concerns about Twitter’s internal commitment to curbing abuse — particularly abuse directed at the platform’s non-celebrity users. For many respondents, Twitter's failure to address harassment on its platform has created an expectation that the problem, now systemic, will never be resolved. Below are some excerpts from respondents:
- “It's completely out of control and Twitter is doing nothing about it. I have a friend who is basically stalked by a couple of people, from multiple sock accounts. One gets suspended, five more take its place. They use report bots to get her suspended. It happens over and over and Twitter does NOTHING.”
- “They can be presented with multiple examples of a user violating TOS and STILL say the account broke no rules. It's disheartening. You feel utterly vulnerable. I've never been so afraid to upset the wrong person.”
- “This ONE situation of harassment I am dealing with has affected my career, ability to find work (which I haven't been able to) and I am just one of many. As a platform/business, I can't see twitter lasting very much longer as people leave rather than accept that the company doesn't care about their users.”
- “Having been on twitter since it started, I have seen a DRASTIC change in the past year, especially in terms of harassment. It has become 'normal,' almost the purpose of the platform itself.”
- “I always tell my co-workers, ‘If you want to know how racist America is, check my Twitter account.’”
- “They can delete accounts sharing broadcast content in minutes, but abusers are rarely if ever sanctioned, and almost never banned.”
- “How much money do I need to have to protect myself and my friends? Olympics money? NBC money? Taylor Swift money?”
- “It sucks. It took down a video I posted about the Olympics about 12+ hours after I published it. But it has never taken down a tweet or an account reported by me. Not a single one. And I report harmful stuff every other day. (Harmful as in blatant racism/sexism, violent content, harassment or abusive content. As in, according to their guidelines.)”
- “I get the impression that Twitter has no interest in curbing or preventing harassment and only seems willing to take action if the public backlash may impact their bottom line. Twitter claims to be balancing concerns for free speech with comfort of users, but the fear of harassment (or a harassment dogpile or even worse - doxxing) routinely causes me to self-censor. In essence, Twitter's protection of hate speech in the guise of free speech infringes on my own free speech.”
- “There seems to be absolutely no way to take action against it. Reporting used to have some impact, lately I don't even get responses to reports.”