"A Honeypot For Assholes": Inside Twitter’s 10-Year Failure To Stop Harassment
For nearly its entire existence, Twitter has not just tolerated abuse and hate speech — it’s virtually been optimized to accommodate it. With public backlash at an all-time high and growth stagnating, what is the platform that declared itself “the free speech wing of the free speech party” to do? BuzzFeed News talks to the people who’ve been trying to figure this out for a decade.
On May 22, 2008, Ariel Waldman ran out of options. Waldman, then a community manager and blogger, had signed up for Twitter in March 2007 and in months had become one of the platform’s 100 most followed accounts. She was, by her own account, “addicted” to the service.
But soon after, the abuse began — for no reason other than that Waldman was a woman writing articles that occasionally touched on sex and technology. In June 2007, a stalker posted some of her private information in a string of threatening tweets. Waldman contacted Twitter, which banned the user in question from the public timeline. But over the next eight months, the targeted abuse and stalking intensified. By March 2008, exhausted and disillusioned by a torrent of tweets calling her a “cunt” and a “whore” and publicizing personal information like her email address, Waldman reached out to Twitter again, this time to the company’s CEO, Jack Dorsey. After a series of phone calls to the company went nowhere, Dorsey and Twitter went silent. So in May, Waldman went public, detailing her ordeal in a blog post, which caught fire in media circles.
Twitter, then still a startup, was fresh off a buzzy SXSW debut, and Waldman’s post was an unfamiliar bit of bad press, depicting Dorsey in particular as an unsympathetic, even cowardly, chief executive. “Jack explained that they’re scared to ban someone because they’re scared if it turned into a lawsuit that they are too small of a company to handle it,” Waldman wrote. While Twitter founder Biz Stone issued a formal acknowledgment of the problem, arguing that “Twitter is a communication utility, not a mediator of content,” Dorsey was silent. Co-founder Ev Williams was more critical, posting tweets that cast doubt on Waldman’s claims and halfheartedly apologizing with a simple “our bad.” Waldman was crushed. “Prior to my coming out, I had great relationships with them and considered some of them my friends,” Waldman told BuzzFeed News this month of the fallout. “I took it very personally. It sucked.”
More than eight years after Waldman’s ordeal, harassment on Twitter is rampant — so much so that it has become a primary destination for trolls and hate groups. So much so that its CEO declared, “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we've sucked at it for years.” So much so that numerous high-profile users have quit the service, citing it as an unsafe space. Today, Twitter is a well-known hunting ground for women and people of color, who are targeted by neo-Nazis, racists, misogynists, and trolls, often just for showing up. Just this summer, actor Leslie Jones was driven off Twitter after a barrage of racist comments and death threats, only to return after a personal reassurance from Dorsey himself. Last week, Normani Kordei of the pop group Fifth Harmony also stepped away from the service after suffering years of “horrific and racially charged” tweets. Despite its integral role in popular culture and in social justice initiatives from the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter, Twitter is as infamous today for being as toxic as it is famous for being revolutionary. And unless you're a celebrity — or, as it turns out, the president of the United States of America — good luck getting help.
According to 10 high-level former employees, the social network’s long history with abuse has been fraught with inaction and organizational disarray. Taken together, these interviews tell the story of a company that’s been ill-equipped to handle harassment since its beginnings. Fenced in by an abiding commitment to free speech above all else and a unique product that makes moderation difficult and trolling almost effortless, Twitter has, over a chaotic first decade marked by shifting business priorities and institutional confusion, allowed abuse and harassment to continue to grow as a chronic problem and perpetual secondary internal priority. On Twitter, abuse is not just a bug, but — to use the Silicon Valley term of art — a fundamental feature.
If you want to fully understand Twitter’s abuse problem, a good place to start is at Google, years before the first tweet was ever sent. While working at Blogger, the wildly popular Google-owned publishing tool, Ev Williams, Biz Stone, and Jason Goldman — all of whom went on to found or work at Twitter — were faced with what now feels like a familiar predicament.
Like Twitter, Blogger had grown quickly as a broadcast tool, becoming home to a wide spectrum of voices, no small number of which were loud and obnoxious and objectionable. But rather than censor the unsavory blogs, Williams and company saw an opportunity to build a platform committed to free expression and the democratic spirit of the internet. That decision was fought internally, pitting Goldman against Sheryl Sandberg, at the time head of Google AdWords, in what Goldman called “a straight-up turf war.”
Goldman won. Working with Alexander Macgillivray, a die-hard free speech advocate who was then a Google attorney, Blogger made a core principle of the universal right to publish, despite outside criticism. “We don’t get involved in adjudicating whether something is libel or slander,” Goldman told Forbes in 2005. The passage that followed reads like it could be written about Twitter today: “In squabbles between anonymous bloggers and victims Google sides with the attackers, refusing to turn over any information unless a judge orders it to open up. 'We’ll do it if we believe we are required to by law,' [Goldman] says."
Less than a year later, when Williams and Stone founded Twitter along with Dorsey, they brought along Goldman and continued largely where they’d left off. “We worked hard at the outset of Twitter to maintain freedom of speech with clear limits,” Stone told BuzzFeed News in a recent email. “This stemmed from my time at Google working on the same issues with Blogger.” But as Waldman’s case exemplifies, even early on, Twitter’s “freedom of speech with clear limits” found critics who saw those limits as opaque and arbitrary.
And while Blogger’s free speech problems were novel, small-scale, and often abstract, Twitter’s follower model and public reply system proved thornier to manage. There’s a big difference between people saying hurtful things on the easily moderated comment section of a hard-to-find blog and people showing up in your mentions spewing hate speech. “The product quirks were secondary ... to free speech,” one former employee said of the company’s early days. “The Blogger brain trust’s thinking was set in stone by the time they became Twitter Inc.”
In the summer of 2009, the company’s values were validated when Twitter was lauded for its role in giving voice to Iranian election protesters. By the time the State Department asked Twitter to delay scheduled maintenance on its servers in order to keep protest communication lines open during the election, Twitter’s reputation as a powerful broadcast tool was solidified. Just weeks later, the company hired Macgillivray away from Google as its first general counsel.
“What was once lauded as a virtue has now become the company’s Achilles' heel.”
“Here you have a great, influential lawyer who philosophically believed you don't shut down a platform because of controversial speech,” one former employee who worked during Macgillivray’s tenure told BuzzFeed News. “That ethos was bought into by everyone in the company. Hard.” 2011 brought the Arab Spring and more international acclaim for Twitter as a platform for revolutionaries. That same year, Twitter fought secret government order to provide user information for WikiLeaks. According to a source, Macgillivray and Stone spent months working on a blog post that would be published during the WikiLeaks controversy, titled “The Tweets Must Flow.” It was Twitter’s boldest commitment to free speech to date. “There are Tweets that we do remove, such as illegal Tweets and spam,” the post read. “However, we make efforts to keep these exceptions narrow so they may serve to prove a broader and more important rule — we strive not to remove Tweets on the basis of their content.” Not long after, Twitter executives began publicly touting that “Twitter is the free speech wing of the free speech party,” a phrase sources attribute to Macgillivray.
This maximalist approach to free speech was integral to Twitter’s rise, but quickly created the conditions for abuse. Unlike Facebook and Instagram, which have always banned content and have never positioned themselves as platforms for free speech, Twitter has made an ideology out of protecting its most objectionable users. That ethos also made it a beacon for the internet’s most vitriolic personalities, who take particular delight in abusing those who use Twitter for their jobs. This spring, the Just Not Sports podcast posted video of sports fans reading a sampling of the hateful tweets that the sportswriters Sarah Spain and Julie DiCaro received while writing and reporting. The video amassed over 3.5 million views on YouTube. Its message: This level of depravity is commonplace on Twitter.
“What was once lauded as a virtue has now become the company’s Achilles' heel — it’s the axis around which all this shit with harassment rotates,” a former senior employee told BuzzFeed News. Nearly all former employees BuzzFeed News spoke to in the course of reporting this story said the same thing. “The whole ‘free speech wing of the free speech party’ thing — that's not a slogan, that's deeply, deeply embedded in the DNA of the company,” Twitter’s former head of news, Vivian Schiller, said. “The people that run Twitter ... are not stupid. They understand that this toxicity can kill them, but how do you draw the line? Where do you draw the line? I would actually challenge anyone to identify a perfect solution. But it feels to a certain extent that it's led to paralysis.”
A senior engineer who left the company before its 2013 IPO echoed Schiller’s point. “You have this opposition between defending the user’s experience and not shutting down speech all while there's this big, toxic mass of people that are abusing,” the source said. “That tension has now, I think, in the past few years, flipped on its head. It’s clear something needs to be done.”
Looking back on Twitter’s early years, multiple former senior employees cite Twitter’s disproportionately white, male leadership — a frequent, factual critique of Silicon Valley’s biggest and most influential tech companies — as creating an environment where building tools to combat harassment was a secondary concern. “The original sin is a homogenous leadership,” one former senior employee told BuzzFeed News. “This is part of what exacerbated the abuse problem for sure — because they were often tone-deaf to the concern of users in the outside world, meaning women and people of color."
“The original sin is a homogenous leadership.”
Talk to enough Twitter insiders and one thing becomes painfully evident: The company’s understanding of its platform hasn’t always been clear to employees, even at senior levels — a problem that has made it difficult to understand how to police harassment. One source recalls that, when asked, Jack Dorsey refused to answer exactly what kind of tool Twitter was. “He said, ‘Twitter brings you closer,'” the former employee recalled. “And I said, ‘To what?’ and he replied, ‘Our users always finish that sentence for us.’ And to me, I thought, Well, it’s going to be really difficult to set policy in place if we can’t define what this thing is."
Internally, employees have long raised questions about whether Twitter was a media company — a broadcast platform that should be governed by content standards and practices similar to a a television network — or a piece of the internet’s infrastructure, like an ISP, that should remain open and free.
“If Twitter is the pulse of the planet, then you’re in the realm of Verizon,” one former senior employee said. “And you don’t tell Verizon that they have to police the words and topics coming in over their phone lines. I think part of what exacerbated the abuse issue for so long is that there's an absence of a clear thesis from Twitter.”
To hear former employees tell it, the better part of Twitter’s corporate history is defined by a seemingly unending set of problems, from keeping the servers running in the early days (Twitter’s service disruptions were so frequent, its ‘Fail Whale’ error page became famous) to IPO fundraising to a sharp pivot to mobile. “There were literally always other fires to put out, always growth targets being missed and execs leaving,” one former employee told BuzzFeed News. One source described the internal culture as “never once tranquil” and another said it was “intense, chaotic, and morale-draining, despite working with some of the best people I’ve known.”
“They had the ability to step up and be a leader in this space — to be proactive instead of reactive. That they haven’t done that is beyond me.”
All the while, the abuse intensified and the public began to take notice. In 2013, Caroline Criado-Perez launched a campaign to put Jane Austen on UK currency and quickly became the target of more than 50 rape threats per hour — which forced Twitter to roll out a “report abuse” feature for individual tweets. The feature came roughly six years into the company’s history and more than five years after Waldman’s ordeal. “It feels like, not only did they have opportunities early on to tackle this, but they had the ability to step up and be a leader in this space — to be proactive instead of reactive,” Waldman said. “That they haven’t done that is beyond me and it's reckless.”
Around that time, high-profile harassment cases became a weekly, if not daily, occurrence, especially in the UK. Sinéad O’Connor was driven off the service in 2011; she later told the Daily Mail she was “getting too much abuse.” Downton Abbey actor Lily James quit after she became the target of hundreds of hateful tweets about her appearance. Actor Matt Lucas had to shut down his account after trolls wouldn’t stop harassing him after the death of his partner.
In the US, stories of Twitter harassment of women, people of color, and religious minorities appeared with increasing frequency, coming to a head in August 2014, when Robin Williams’ daughter Zelda was forced to quit Twitter after trolls flooded her mentions with photoshopped images of her recently deceased father. Williams’ departure from Twitter went viral and prompted Twitter’s Trust and Safety head, Del Harvey, to condemn the attacks. “We will not tolerate abuse of this nature,” she said, noting that the company would work to find policy fixes to prevent cases like Williams’.
It was also around this time that Twitter began broadcasting grisly ISIS beheadings and Gamergate’s multipronged misogynist harassment campaign toward female gamers. Harvey’s team rolled out more streamlined forms for reporting abuse, dispensing with its cumbersome nine-part questionnaire and adding back-end flagging tools for Twitter’s Trust and Safety team. One month later, Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist writer and video game critic, took to her Tumblr page and posted 157 of examples of misogyny, gendered insults, victim blaming, incitement to suicide, and rape and death threats she’d received in a recent six-day stretch on Twitter. Despite the overtures from Twitter, the trolls were winning.
On October 25, 2013, Twitter released video of its IPO roadshow presentation to Wall Street underwriters. The 37-minute pitch, which resembles a grainy Skype session crossed with a PowerPoint presentation, features a well-dressed Dick Costolo (then Twitter’s CEO) in front of a blue background, staring down the barrel of the lens. “We think we’ve only scratched the surface of everything we think Twitter can become,” Costolo said unblinkingly into the camera. “There are over 2.4 billion connected people worldwide and over 230 million users on Twitter — we are less than 10% penetrated across the globe.” The implied logic: Twitter intends to connect the world and grow exponentially in the process.
That didn’t happen. Twitter’s lead-up to its public offering and subsequent lackluster Wall Street performance did, however, create a laundry list of new challenges that, according to some former employees, kneecapped Twitter’s product. “Leading up to IPO, it was all about revenue growth, from CEO on down,” a former member of Twitter’s product team told BuzzFeed News. “All investments went into revenue, and I know definitely that the consumer product suffered. Forget abuse — I don’t think we did anything with core consumer at that time, and I think that's somewhat justified if the goal is going public,” the source said.
And if Twitter was far from tranquil before the IPO, it only became less so after. Though the company was bringing in considerable revenue, the fear of disappointing Wall Street with stagnant user numbers led Costolo and the executive team to reshuffle Twitter’s priorities again and again, according to multiple senior sources who worked closely with Costolo during this time. According to those sources, Costolo and the company’s newly hired banker turned CFO, Anthony Noto, were so reactive strategically that employees began referring internally to them as the company’s “ad-hocracy.”
“If there's a trash fire burning in your front yard, saying you don't want to call the fire department because you don't want to get the house wet is not really a sensical thing.”
Nowhere was this felt more than on Twitter’s product team, the part of the company in charge of developing, testing, and rolling out new user features for Twitter across mobile and the web. “We had this area of intense, shifting focus in every area of the company around almost every issue other than abuse,” one former product team member said.” The result was that since 2010, Twitter has had seven heads of product (eight if you count Dorsey’s brief interim tenure in early 2016), with five of those job changes coming since 2014. “There were like four VPs of product during my time on the team ... just never any continuity at all,” one former team member said. “There’s a lot of jokes you can say about the length of tenure of product heads,” another former employee said. “That lack of continuity means it’s difficult to get stuff done.”
“Finding a product solution for abuse was like looking for a moonshot,” another former employee said. “But NASA wouldn't have put a person on the moon if between ’59 and ’69 there were seven heads of NASA.”
Sources inside the company in the years after Twitter’s IPO also said that product decisions were often scrapped or never advanced out of initial tests if they were thought to inhibit user growth. “I did see a lot of decisions being made in terms of growth when it came to how to handle abuse, which I get,” former engineering manager Leslie Miley told BuzzFeed News. “But on the other side, if there's a trash fire burning in your front yard, saying you don't want to call the fire department because you don't want to get the house wet is not really a sensical thing.”
Miley — who was helping to roll out two-factor password authentication for the platform — described lobbying for a year to require all Twitter employees to enable two-factor for their own Twitter accounts. “I was adamant that there was no good reason not to do this, because who’s a bigger target for a Twitter hack than a Twitter employee,” he recalled. But Miley’s pleas went unheeded inside the executive branch, who worried the product was too hard for employees to use and might stop many inside the company from tweeting. “I was like, 'Uh, what better way to fix that than deploying it to thousands and getting their input,’” Miley said. “But they said, ‘It's still too hard to use and we want our people using the product.’” Shortly after Miley gave up on convincing company leadership to safeguard their accounts, Noto’s Twitter account was hacked.
Many former employees cite the stagnation of Twitter’s product team as a chief reason for the rise in harassment after 2012. “I think product has failed users,” one former senior employee told BuzzFeed News. Part of what makes Twitter so powerful is its ability to level the communication field; tweets from a non-famous, little-followed user, are, in theory, just as easy to surface as a celebrity’s. Simply, Twitter is built differently than most social networks. Two accounts don’t have to follow each other to interact, and once a tweet is out in the world, the original tweeter doesn’t have the ability to moderate responses, like they might on an Instagram or Facebook comment. This unique design is responsible for some of Twitter’s most revolutionary and serendipitous moments; it’s also perfect for abuse.
“For years, it allowed this equal footing, where a troll you didn’t follow and your best friend who you follow and interact with all the time were given equal weight, and that's crazy,” a former senior employee said. "Seriously, if you were an alien and you came down to look at this thing, you’d say, ‘Oh, the product was basically built for maximum ease of trolling.' Like, they must have built this for trolls.”
Employees close to the product team echoed these frustrations. “There are easy anti-abuse ideas that product managers brought up like 10 times — like, when you open any famous person tweet, the first reply you see should be somebody the tweeter follows, not just a rando,” one former employee said. “We talked about this idea five years ago — that’s an eternity in tech — and they’re not executed, and that does not give me hope that they think about this problem.”
Or, as one former employee said, “product inaction created a honeypot for assholes.”
“Product inaction created a honeypot for assholes.”
Sarah Hagi, an identity-focused writer who is perhaps best known for coining the phrase “Carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man," told BuzzFeed News she has been subject to intense abuse on Twitter since she started writing professionally. Hagi said that the harassment centered on her is mostly for being black, Muslim, and female — "any variation of me being a crazy Muslim animal or being a disgusting oppressed Muslim woman," she said. "When I first started getting abusive comments, which would be anywhere from people insulting aspects of my identity to sending me photos of female genital mutilation, I would respond, but I quickly learned that makes it worse. Now, I either block or mute right away and try to not pay any attention." The abuse can manifest in the form of an isolated response after a seemingly innocuous tweet; other times, it comes from a mob of accounts set upon her by a single troll with a large following. "I think because nothing really has changed with how Twitter deals with harassers, it has gotten worse," she said. "They know nothing really will happen to them, so they continue doing whatever they want. "
In 2015, Guardian columnist Lindy West wrote about her years-long experience with Twitter harassment. In response, Dick Costolo wrote his leaked “we suck at dealing with abuse” staff memo. At the time, employees inside Twitter thought the attention — and the memo — might provide some motivation to improve the product, but little changed once the media maelstrom shifted its focus. “There would be pressure after high-profile abuse that was getting press,” one former employee said. "But it was mostly, ‘Well, if we fix this problem this way it won’t happen again.’ And that’s too reactive — it felt like firefighting rather than asking, ‘How do we prevent fires?’"
Nearly all the former employees BuzzFeed News spoke to praised Harvey’s Trust and Safety team for its commitment to curbing harassment, but suggested that failures on the product side left it hamstrung. “They were on the front lines working with users and trying so hard,” a former senior employee said, “but getting caught in a rock and a hard place between what the stated mission of the company was and the resources available to create that environment."
“If Twitter had people in the room who'd been abused on the internet when they were creating the company, I can assure you the service would be different.”
They were also limited by a workforce that multiple former employees say fundamentally didn’t understand what abuse looks and feels like. “The decision-makers were not people who got abuse and didn't understand that it’s not about content, it's about context,” Miley said. “If Twitter had people in the room who'd been abused on the internet — meaning not just straight, white males — when they were creating the company, I can assure you the service would be different.” A 2015 Women, Action, and the Media study revealed that, as of 2014, Twitter’s leadership was 79% male and 72% white.
Miley was adamant about finding a proactive engineering solution for Twitter’s troll problem, but he said he consistently came up against opposition from a product team that favored content-based filters (preventing abusive tweets based on keywords) over context-based prevention (identifying and stopping harassment based on the accounts involved and the subject matter). In one instance, Miley argued to the company’s product safety team that a filtering algorithm for the keyword “cunt” was too broad and would censor accounts (in the UK, the word can be used as a slang term of endearment). “If you try to focus on keywords and the number of blocks and unfollows, you'll end up with an algorithm or bot that doesn't have the level of precision you need.”
Numerous former employees described Twitter’s approach to harassment as mimicking the company’s approach to fighting spam. “The focus on the engineering side was first on the spam problem, and it was a much more visible thing for more users than user safety and abuse problems,” a former employee familiar with the product team said. Miley echoed this: “Spam is a solved problem — we know how to detect and filter that. If you approach abuse like spam, you'll never put a dent in abuse.”
According to former employees, the external pressures — stagnant growth, media scrutiny, and constant personnel shifts — even created fissures in Twitter’s once rock-solid free speech defense. Shortly after news broke that Zelda Williams was leaving Twitter, Costolo was getting DMs and texts from Hollywood agents at firms like CAA, threatening to pull their high-profile celebrity clients off Twitter if Costolo didn’t stop harassment. Costolo scrambled, ordering teams to delete offending accounts and tweets. Weeks later, when a rash of beheading videos appeared, Costolo gave similar takedown orders, causing Twitter’s free speech advocates, Gabriel Stricker and Vijaya Gadde, to call an emergency policy meeting.
Inside the meeting, attended by Costolo, Stricker, Gadde, and product head Kevin Weil (now Instagram’s product lead) and first reported by BuzzFeed News, tensions rose as Costolo’s desire to build a more palatable network that was marketable and ultimately attractive to new users clashed with Stricker and Gadde’s desire for radically free expression.
“You really think we should have videos of people being murdered?” someone who attended the meeting recalls Costolo arguing, while Stricker reportedly compared Costolo’s takedown of undesirable content to deleting the Zapruder film after objections from the Kennedy family. Ultimately, the meeting ended with the group deciding to carve out policy exceptions to keep up grisly content for newsworthiness, according to one person present. Though Stricker and Gadde won, one source described a frustrated Costolo leaving in disagreement. “I think if you guys have your way the only people using Twitter will be ISIS and the ACLU,” Costolo said, according to this person.
“I think the pressure over user growth totally exacerbated Dick’s decision-making at this time,” the source told BuzzFeed News. “Looking back, it’s that ongoing part of the ad-hocracy — we can’t have big policy precedents being set by one person for one small scenario when nobody’s watching. Meanwhile, we have teams also talking with Russian and Turkish dictators asking us to censor the platform for them and we’re telling them to fuck off. There’s no continuity.”
But, according to sources, Costolo continued making censorship decisions for celebrities — sometimes in secret. In the middle of 2015, Costolo and Noto, frustrated that Reddit had become the internet’s go-to destination for celebrity Q&A sessions, made a push via Twitter’s media team to facilitate more live town-hall discussions with influential users. In May 2015, after the company secured an #AskPOTUS Q&A with President Obama, Costolo secretly ordered the media partnerships team inside Twitter to use an algorithm to filter all tweets directed at the president for abusive language.
According to one source, the algorithm was fed thousands of examples of abusive and harassing language in order to block vitriolic tweets. Another source said the media partnerships team also manually censored tweets, noting that Twitter's public quality filtering algorithms were inconsistent. Participants in the #AskPOTUS town hall were never informed that tweets would be censored, and two sources told BuzzFeed News that the decision to filter was kept from specific senior company employees, for fear they would object to the decision.
Another source alleges that Twitter also deployed the censoring algorithm for a Q&A with Caitlyn Jenner. “This was another example of trying to woo celebs and show that you can have civilized conversations without the hate even if you’re a high-profile person,” one former employee said. “But it’s another example of a double standard — we’ll protect our celebrities, while the average user is out there subject to all kinds of horrible things.” Costolo did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Just a month after the Obama Q&A, Costolo stepped down as CEO, retaining a seat on Twitter’s board. In an exit interview with The Guardian on June 30, 2015, he defended Twitter’s commitment to free speech. “I will say directly that I think regulation is a threat to free speech,” he said.
The Jenner and Obama incidents weren’t the only time Twitter’s seeming double standard for celebrities and non-celebrities was thrown into relief. This July, when Ghostbusters actor and Saturday Night Live cast member Leslie Jones was subject to a cascade of racist and sexist harassment led by conservative blogger Milo Yiannopoulos, Jones quit the service. Twitter’s current CEO, Jack Dorsey, reached out to Jones and, following a conversation, permanently banned Yiannopoulos. Jones returned, but Twitter’s process for handling high-profile instances like Jones’ remains opaque.
And a simple Twitter search for “harassment” turns up dozens of frustrated non-celebrity users, many of whom experience daily threats and abuse, and almost none of whom have a direct line to Dorsey. One tweet from author and writer Jessica Valenti suggested that the trolls were unfazed by Twitter’s ban. “This morning I woke up to a rape and death threat directed at my 5 year old daughter. That this is part of my work life is unacceptable,” it read.
Last month, during the company’s most recent earnings call, Dorsey made a familiar declaration, vowing to combat abuse in the coming months. “No one deserves to be the target of abuse on Twitter," Dorsey said. "And we need to do better.” Former employees are skeptical at best. “I think any time you have a change in leadership, the priorities shift a bit," Miley, who left Twitter early in 2016, told BuzzFeed News. “When Dick left and Jack came on there was a lot of jockeying on what are the priorities are for Twitter, and I think the focus dropped off of abuse,” he said. Another source was concerned that Dorsey’s other day job — as CEO of Square — might make solving harassment more difficult. “Jack is wonderful and truly cares deeply about harassment, but as a part-time CEO, it's really difficult to keep the pressure on,” the source said. “He's incredible, but at least on the Twitter side, the company needs 1,000% focus.”
As always, there’s hope from executives that Twitter will make things right. In February, Twitter formed a Trust and Safety Council, with more than 40 partners, including Anita Sarkeesian, to provide product and policy input. Co-founder Biz Stone told BuzzFeed News that, behind the scenes under Dorsey, “Twitter is working hard, and making progress in this space.” And he added that Twitter needs to evolve with the times: “No employee should ever be in the position of having to decide, subjectively, what qualifies as free speech and what does not. A strong constitution goes a long way here." A former senior executive suggested that Twitter has new plans in the works, and that he has even mocked up comprehensive product solutions to combat abuse, which have been given to Dorsey.
Others suggest that forthcoming changes, while necessary, might be too little, too late. “If tomorrow Twitter implemented a set of super reasonable reforms, it would rightly suffer the criticism that, while this is great, it took too long,” a former senior employee told BuzzFeed News. “The longer you wait to take steps, the better the fixes need to be. It’s like, ‘Awesome! But it took took you 10 years. What's wrong with you people?’”
When reached for comment, a Twitter spokesperson emailed the following statement: "Safety on Twitter is a top priority for us. No one deserves to be subjected to abuse online and our rules prohibit inciting or engaging in abuse or harassment."
Eight years after her blog post, Ariel Waldman, the first public case of Twitter harassment, has moved on. Waldman chose not to quit Twitter, opting to endure the trolls and slurs in favor of its benefits.
“It feels like so much work to use Twitter, and that should be a real red flag.”
But things have grown worse. In the last two weeks she was barraged with dozens of abusive tweets after she posted a photo of herself wearing a headscarf she bought for an upcoming trip to Iran. “Within seconds I had a deluge of people tweeting the most racist stuff at me — it was bordering on murderous,” she said. So she deleted the tweet, blocked dozens of users, and posted the photo to Instagram, where she isn’t harassed. A few days ago Waldman tweeted about an upcoming NASA grant and the tweet was seized upon by neo-Nazis advocating for the genocide of all people of color.
Waldman, like every single one of the dozen people interviewed for this story, stressed that she loved Twitter; that when it works as it should, it’s empowering, exciting, even life-changing. But, like almost every participant in this story, Waldman’s voice grew tired while making excuses for Twitter's shortcomings. “I mean, the thing is that it’s just getting to that point where it’s become such an exhausting service to use,” she said with a heavy sigh. “That blocking 20 awful people every day has to be a part of my logistical reality — even when I’m not seeking abuse out. It’s just — it feels like so much work to use Twitter, and that should be a real red flag. They’ve clearly showed they don’t want to make abuse a priority.
“It’s like, who would reasonably want to use a service that does this to you?”