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‘Unprecedented’ partnership will tackle abuse of women on Twitter

The feminist game critic Anita Sarkeesian has become something of a poster girl for Twitter’s gender-based violence issues since she became a target of the “Gamergate” movement in August. (Alex Lazara/Courtesy of Feminist Frequency)
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Twitter hasn’t always been kind to its female users — much like the Internet more generally.

But after half a dozen high-profile harassment incidents in as many months, a damning report from the Association for Progressive Communications, and mounting evidence that online abuse is both widespread and unchecked, Twitter may finally be willing to do something about it. That’s the implication, at least, of a newly announced partnership between the popular social network and the nonprofit Women, Action & the Media, which previously persuaded Facebook to crack down on gender-based violence under the #FBrape campaign.

“I can’t guarantee what will happen” in terms of reforms, said Jaclyn Friedman, WAM’s executive director. “But I can say that the interest from Twitter has been very committed and very genuine.”

Friedman, a prominent feminist author and activist, is no stranger to online abuse herself. She’s never had to leave her home or call the police. But between her experience with Twitter’s vitriol-spewing trolls, and reports from colleagues, acquaintances and the media, Friedman has seen gaping holes in Twitter’s abuse-reporting process.

For one thing, she says, the social network lacks the resources to review abuse reports in a timely manner, which means that even credible threats can sit unanswered too long.

For another thing, Twitter’s definition of abuse is notoriously narrow — and it hasn’t kept up with the ever-evolving tactics of the site’s worst trolls. It has become common, for instance, for abusers to circulate fake quotes or photos of a victim, the better to rally vitriol against her. They sometimes build networks of sock puppet accounts to continue tormenting the same victim once their other accounts are removed. And if a user is attacked by many dozens or hundreds of trolls at once — not an uncommon occurrence for high-profile women — there’s no way to report that abuse en masse. Instead, the victim has to fill out a lengthy form for every single person who tweets at her. The form was recently overhauled, but it still takes a couple minutes to fill out.

“They aren’t capturing the full scale and context of abuse,” Friedman said. “There’s a lot of nuance to the tactics that abusers use. And right now, Twitter doesn’t account for that nuance.”

To change that, WAM is basically employing a two-pronged approach. For starters, it’s collecting its own reports from victims of gendered violence on Twitter via its own online form. Then, through its status as an “authorized reporter” — a Twitter-vetted group with special reporting privileges — WAM will escalate the complaints of users who fill out its form so that Twitter responds to them sooner.

WAM will also, at the end of an unspecified test period, compile the data for Twitter and publish a report on how the network handled gender-based abuse. The idea is that the data could then inform further discussions with Twitter — and, hopefully, some changes on the site. It’s not, perhaps, the grand policy change that advocates have hoped for, and it doesn’t represent any concrete shift in Twitter’s stance toward harassment of women. But as WAM points out in a news release, it’s certainly a start — and an “unprecedented” one, at that.

“Women can’t even predict when they’ll say something online that will provoke harassment,” Friedman said — before getting interrupted by chirps from her own Twitter feed. “I’m really excited about this. And I’m excited that Twitter is concerned about the same issues.”

Update, 11/7:  Twitter is indeed excited. The company released the following statement:

We’re always trying to improve the way we handle abuse issues, and WAM! is one of many organizations we work with around the world on best practices for user safety.