In fairy tales, trolls hide under bridges, in the 21st century, they haunt the bottom half of the internet, lurk behind social media profiles, and generally cause distress. And Twitter CEO Dick Costolo has had enough.
Costolo – who is in a battle to keep Wall St on side by growing its audience and reach – has pointed out that the problem of trolling is hurting Twitter’s cause and is actually forcing people away from the service.
Twitter has 284m registered users compared with Facebook’s 1.3bn users and is striving to grow advertising revenue through a variety of models, including advertising outside its own network.
While trolls on social networks are nothing new, activities ranging from bullying and harassment that include outright taunts to suicide and threats of rape have brought the situation to a remarkable new low.
Cases like that of Seattle pop culture writer and feminist Lindy West have come to the fore and recently she poignantly remarked: “Being harassed on the internet is such a normal, common part of my life that I’m always surprised when other people find it surprising.”
Feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian got caught up in the whole #gamergate controversy when she criticised the way women are portrayed in games.
In a recent article documenting the kind of harassment she has endured on Twitter – including threats of rape and incitement to suicide – Sarkeesian said: “Ever since I began my Tropes vs Women in Video Games project, two and a half years ago, I’ve been harassed on a daily basis by irate gamers angry at my critiques of sexism in video games. It can sometimes be difficult to effectively communicate just how bad this sustained intimidation campaign really is.”
Another person caught up in the #gamergate controversy was games developer Brianna Wu. Last year she and her husband were forced to flee their home after receiving online threats and their personal details were posted on 8chan. Her crime? Creating a video game Revolution 60 that had a strong female cast and for her condemnation of #gamergate.
For companies like Twitter – which views itself as much a media company as a social network – providing a framework for such abuse to occur is clearly getting to Twitter employees and one employee asked the company what it is going to do about the problem.
According to The Verge, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo responded by saying its time to slay the trolls forever.
“We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we've sucked at it for years. 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. 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.
We're going to start kicking these people off right and left and making sure that when they issue their ridiculous attacks, nobody hears them.
“Everybody on the leadership team knows this is vital.”
In a follow-up message he reiterated: “Let me be very very clear about my response here. I take PERSONAL responsibility for our failure to deal with this as a company. I thought i did that in my note, so let me reiterate what I said, which is that I take personal responsibility for this. I specifically said "It's nobody's fault but mine"
“We HAVE to be able to tell each other the truth, and the truth that everybody in the world knows is that we have not effectively dealt with this problem even remotely to the degree we should have by now, and that's on me and nobody else. So now we're going to fix it, and I'm going to take full responsibility for making sure that the people working night and day on this have the resources they need to address the issue, that there are clear lines of responsibility and accountability, and that we don't equivocate in our decisions and choices.”
While Twitter will no doubt work away at what is clearly a massive problem from a technical viewpoint, the bigger question is how to we tackle a situation where people find it acceptable to troll online for any reason. Many of these people wouldn't do it to somebody's face but yet it's acceptable to do it from an online account, be it Twitter, Facebook or any other kind of social medium?
What kind of a society makes it okay for a person to bully and harass others, seemingly protected by a digital layer or avatar? What kind of mind thinks it is okay to threaten rape or incite suicide?
It’s a deeper problem but it’s good to see Twitter taking it seriously.
Brianna Wu will be a speaker at Inspire 2015, Silicon Republic’s international event running 18-19 June in Dublin that connects sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM with fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity. Buy your early bird tickets now!
Internet trolls image via Shutterstock