Twitter is almost 11 years old, and for the first decade of its existence, it struggled to find substantive ways to stop growing harassment and abuse on the platform. But Twitter has used the past several months to try to change that perception by rolling out a series of not-insubstantial anti-abuse changes to how Twitter works.
The latest of those changes will make it harder for permanently banned users to return to the site under new accounts, filter already marked “potentially sensitive” content from the default search results, and add a filter to conversations that hides “potentially abusive” or “low-quality” replies unless you opt in to see them.
Like many of Twitter’s latest anti-harassment initiatives, the search and conversation tweaks rely on filtering — rather than eliminating — abusive behavior from the platform. The announcement doesn’t give a ton of specifics about how these new measures will actually work once they roll out in the coming weeks, or how exactly it’s determined what sort of content should be filtered out. So, like many of Twitter’s anti-harassment tweaks, we will have to wait and see how they actually work in practice.
In the meantime, however, Twitter also has a handful of tools to help those experiencing abuse on the platform to some degree. Some have been improved over the past few months, as Twitter appears to make a more serious commitment to fighting abuse. Below is a refresher on each.
Twitter introduced a “quality filter” to verified users on the platform’s iOS app in early 2015. The idea was, essentially, that users could opt in to allowing Twitter to automatically hide potentially abusive tweets from their notifications. As of August, that filter is now available to all users. Its universal roll-out followed a particularly high-profile instance of abuse on the platform, when a mob of racist trolls harassed actress Leslie Jones.
Twitter constantly tests and tweaks things like this, but when the Intersect tested one of its earliest iterations, we found that the quality filter worked pretty well, should you essentially want a spam and abuse filter for the platform. In that test, the filter hid tweets with unambiguously threatening language from obvious troll accounts. It didn’t hide normal, everyday criticism or tweets about news stories that contained words such as “rape” or “kill.”
To turn on the quality filter, go to the “notifications” tab under your Twitter settings and check the box. It is also worth noting that, in the same section, you can go even further and only allow notifications from people you follow.
Twitter has allowed users to “mute” specific accounts for a long time, essentially making them invisible without actually blocking them. But for some reason, it took until last November for the platform to introduce the ability to also mute by keyword, hashtag or conversation.
Here’s how to mute keywords: Go to your Twitter settings, and look for the “muted words” tab. Twitter will pop up a little message telling you that muting words will, as implied, hide any tweets containing those words from your notifications and replies. You can always delete keywords from the mute list.
To mute a conversation, click the little arrow on the side of any tweet or reply in a conversation, and it’ll bring up a drop-down menu. One of the options: “Mute this conversation.” Basically, this will stop you from seeing updates in your notifications for any future replies to that tweet. This is useful for, say, if you end up tagged in an argument between other Twitter users, or when someone tweets something objectionable to you and you’d prefer not to see anything else that follows in that thread.
In the image of me muting any conversation stemming from Tim’s bad tweet above, you can also see a third “mute” option: muting a user. This has been around longer, and it’s a way to make sure you don’t see content from someone, without actually blocking them. You can mute Twitter accounts you follow, along with those you don’t, but as Twitter explains, the “mute” feature behaves slightly differently in each case.
I could have also blocked Tim, had I wanted to, in that same menu. Blocking someone does a couple of things right away: Neither account can follow the other, the blocked account can’t see your tweets if you’re logged in, and they can’t send you direct messages. If you block someone, Twitter doesn’t notify that person. But they will know right away if they try to visit your Twitter page.
Block is one of the oldest tools available to combat harassment and trolling on Twitter, first introduced in 2007. Twitter tried to get rid of it a couple of years ago (the idea was to replace it with “mute”), but the announcement was extremely unpopular and the company reversed course.
While effective, blocking isn’t perfect. If your account is public, the person you’ve blocked simply has to log out to see your tweets, for instance. That’s certainly a pain, but not enough of a pain to deter a motivated troll.
In addition to that drop-down menu, Twitter also allows you to add names to a block list in a menu under “settings” and to import and export lists of blocked accounts.
The tools above are things you can do to immediately filter out abuse, harassment or whatever else you’d prefer not to see on Twitter. But you can also report instances of apparent rule-breaking on Twitter, which is one of the places where Twitter has long struggled to improve its anti-abuse reputation.
Twitter largely depends on user reports of harassment to enforce its own rules. But those rules, even as they have increased in length and force over the years, remain vague, which means that those reporting rule-breaking, those being accused of rule-breaking, and the moderators charged with making decisions about those reports can come to different conclusions about the same instance of alleged abuse. In November, Twitter announced that it was trying to fix its long-running inconsistency with rule enforcement by, among other things, making it easier to report “hateful conduct” on the platform, and by retraining its moderators to better understand how to evaluate the context of a reported tweet.
And, as you might expect, trolls know a few ways around getting reported for harassment. Twitter attempted to address one of them last week by allowing users to report tweets from accounts that have blocked them on the platform. If you know someone is tweeting about you, but has blocked your account so that you can’t access the tweets while logged in, there’s now a way to report the account and flag any tweets of theirs that mention your username.
To report a tweet, you can use the handy drop-down menu available on each individual tweet. Once you click “report tweet,” Twitter will ask you to answer a few questions about the tweet, and why you believe it breaks the rules.
Protect your account
Another, more drastic, option is available when all of the above fail to stop determined harassment and abuse: protecting your account. This means locking away your tweets from public view, so that only the followers you have approved can see them (if your account was public and you set it to private, your current followers will be included in this group). Your tweets will become un-retweetable, and they’ll no longer show up in search engines.
Having a protected account comes with a lot of disadvantages, so it’s not ideal. But for those who are experiencing extreme abuse on the platform and find that Twitter isn’t doing enough to help stop it, this is an option. The option to protect your account is under “settings” in the “security and privacy” section. Check the box marked “protect my tweets.”
In January, writer Lindy West decided that the only real solution to the harassment on Twitter was to leave Twitter. “I’ve left Twitter,” the headline of her piece about it read. “It is unusable for anyone but trolls, robots and dictators.”
Although Twitter has done a lot since the summer, particularly after the harassment of Leslie Jones, to step up its anti-harassment measures, for some users such as West, the changes are too overdue and don’t go far enough. And when that’s the case, the best option can become to leave Twitter entirely.
To delete your account, go to the “account” section of the settings menu. In tiny text, under the “save changes” button at the bottom of the rest of the menu, is a link that reads “deactivate my account.” Twitter will then ask you to verify that you really want to do it. Once deactivated, Twitter says, you have about 30 days to change your mind before they start deleting it from their system entirely.