This time, Twitter vows, things will be different. But will they?
Following news earlier this week that Zelda Williams, daughter of the late Robin Williams, deserted her social media accounts after being harassed by vicious trolls, Twitter Inc. (NYSE:TWTR) pledged to make meaningful policy tweaks that will allow users to better fend off harassers. In a statement to the Associated Press, the company was uncharacteristically specific in describing what form these changes might take. “This includes expanding our policies regarding self-harm and private information, and improving support for family members of deceased users,” Del Harvey, head of the company’s Trust and Safety team.
The decision follows a torrent of malicious comments and images tweeted at Zelda Williams, whose father was found dead in his California home on Monday. When news of Robin Williams’ death broke, a number of anonymous Twitter trolls took the opportunity to harass his grieving 25-year-old daughter with comments such as “most people are happy your [expletive] dad killed himself.” By Wednesday afternoon, Williams had had enough. She tweeted her 204,000 followers to say she was dropping off Twitter, possibly for good.
I'm sorry. I should've risen above. Deleting this from my devices for a good long time, maybe forever. Time will tell. Goodbye.
â€” Zelda Williams (@zeldawilliams) August 13, 2014
Twitter was swift and decisive in its response. In his statement to the AP, Harvey pointed out that numerous Twitter accounts were suspended over Williams’ harassment, and he followed up a firm proclamation that would seem to suggest a zero-tolerance policy: “We will not tolerate abuse of this nature on Twitter,” he said.
However, some users who have been on the receiving end of Twitter harassment may be wondering what took Twitter so long. The company has long been criticized for its hands-off approach -- and for not taking threats and harassment seriously enough until a high-profile incident blows up in the news. It took an online petition with 140,000-plus signatures before Twitter added a “report abuse” button that makes reporting instigators easier. That it took the harassment of a major celebrity’s daughter before Twitter made its latest pledge is not likely to quell accusations that the company is too slow to act.
Twitter’s terms of service expressly prohibit targeted abuse, but not everyone thinks it enforces that policy as heavily as it should. Last year, when grad student Melissa Bachmann suddenly found herself the target of unprovoked death threats and insults, she said Twitter’s reporting mechanisms were virtually useless. Bachmann was mistaken for a big-game hunter who shares the same name. She was harassed for several days in late November when images of the hunter posing with a dead lion went viral, but she said her requests for help went unreturned by Twitter. When the site finally replied, a month later, it merely sent Bachman a list of “tips,” including the suggestion that Bachman should simply ignore her aggravators. “I am still 100 percent disappointed in Twitter and the way they handle this type of behavior,” Bachmann told IBTimes in December.
In Twitter’s defense, the never-ending game of Whac-a-Troll is one that plagues nearly every website on the Internet, as Gawker Media staffers reminded everyone earlier this week with revelations that Jezebel has a serious problem with rape gifs. Consider that much of the abuse directed at Zelda Williams came from a user called @MrGoosebuster, who can only be described as a full-time troll. (“I’m a rapist,” boasts the user’s account profile.) Following Williams’ complaints, Twitter suspended the user’s account, but not before he (we’ll assume it’s a he) ratcheted up more than 800 followers and 75,300 tweets. That’s a pretty active history. Of course, we can’t know for certain how many of those now-deleted tweets were abusive in nature, but a cached version of his Twitter stream reveals venomous trolling was certainly a favorite pastime @MrGoosebuster.
And if his final tweet before his account suspension is any indication, we can bet he’ll return to troll again. “It was fun while it lasted,” the tweet read. “Looks like I’m headed to the bench again.”