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A Tale of Two Twitters

Did Leslie Jones force the social network to address its harassment problem?

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

There were two different Twitter developments Tuesday. One of them happened on Twitter, while the other happened to Twitter. And only one matters.

Earlier this week, Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones drew attention to how badly Twitter handles harassment by retweeting some of the most vitriolic comments she had recently received. She asked for help in stopping the onslaught of racist and hateful speech directed at her. On Monday, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey told her he was paying attention, and that they should take it to DM. Was Twitter finally prioritizing online harassment like its peer social networks? After all, Instagram has been so gung-ho in protecting celebrities that it recently banned users from putting snake emoji in Taylor Swift’s comments. Surely it was time for Twitter to come up with a solution to its worst flaw.

Twitter did, in fact, have a product update planned for this week. It announced Tuesday afternoon that the platform will now allow all users to apply for the blue verification checkmark. I know: What does getting a digital award for existing have to do with effectively combating harassment? Nothing. It looked like Twitter had once again spent resources on a pointless update instead of addressing a fundamental problem.

But then, on Tuesday night, Twitter did something remarkably rare: It permanently banned Milo Yiannopoulos, an infamous right-wing writer who had spearheaded the campaign against Jones. This action actually addresses the harassment problems that Jones wouldn’t let Twitter ignore. Yiannopoulos had previously lost his verified checkmark for violating Twitter’s terms of service. The ban came after Jones tweeted that she had reported Yiannopoulos’s account. (I truly hope this means Jones had some frank shit to say to Jack Dorsey in those DM’s.)

The platform gave the following statement to BuzzFeed:

Blocking one platinum-haired ghoul who harassed a celebrity doesn’t mean that Twitter’s abuse problem is fixed. We’ve heard the company pay lip service to addressing the problem before, and this could turn out to be another empty promise. In 2015, Dick Costolo, Twitter’s CEO at the time, sent a memo to his staff. “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years,” it said. It’s a year later, and Twitter still sucks at dealing with abuse. But the Yiannopoulos perma-ban is a good starting gesture.

Back to the news about the blue checkmark. The verification application remains silly, and it’s tone-deaf to roll out an update in the middle of a high-profile abuse incident. Being verified on Twitter doesn’t mean much. (Though it does mean a lot to Yiannopoulos. He went to a White House press briefing to complain about losing his verification back in March.) It can be helpful for celebrities and public figures who want a symbol to prove their identities, and to prevent confusion with impersonators or parody accounts. It’s marginally helpful for journalists, since Twitter offers a special tab allowing verified users to see tweets from fellow verified users. But for the vast majority of Twitter users, there is no point to verification — beyond an ego boost.

Who will read all of these verification applications? I don’t envy anyone the job of sifting through thousands of flop-sweaty “PR gurus” and thousands more “startup ninjas” hoping that a blue badge will act as social capital. I wouldn’t wish that job on my worst enemy (Jonathan Cheban) — nor would I wish that job on anyone at all, because no one should have it. It shouldn’t exist.

Here’s an idea: Instead of paying staff to decide who gets to move up an arbitrary and ultimately meaningless digital clout system, why not employ those people as ancillary staff to help respond more quickly to reported abuse? There shouldn’t have to be another Leslie Jones or Lindy West or Anita Sarkeesian who has to be harassed and then use their platform to get a response from Twitter. Twitter’s hard stance against Yiannopoulos was incredibly rare; its announcement of a verification application was completely the opposite — maybe these priorities should be switched.

Yiannopoulos responded to his ban in a statement to Brietbart, the website where he works as an editor:

This ban will certainly rally Yiannopoulos fans and stir debate about how social platforms police speech. But to be clear, Twitter — as well as Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and any other business that provides digital social spaces — is permitted to create rules governing what people can post and what they can’t. If anything, Twitter’s rules about what its users can say to each other have proved to be enforced far too loosely when it comes to threats and harassment. Yiannopoulous’s statement does make one striking point: A portion of his fans are just as bad, and often far, far worse, than he is. That’s why it is so important that Twitter not stop at punishing a figurehead — and why handing out verification badges shouldn’t be a priority.