Twitter is rolling out the first of several changes to its service to combat online harassment, the company announced Tuesday.
The social network has simplified the way that users can report abusive behavior online and has enabled observers to report coordinated harassment attacks against an individual user. Overall, the changes give users more options to describe the kinds of harassment they're seeing online -- name-calling, violent threats, etc. -- and have been designed to look more like the rest of the site to make the process feel more intuitive.
Starting today we're rolling out an improved way to flag abusive Tweets. See how it works. https://t.co/Yf6cStz0z1
— Twitter Support (@Support) December 2, 2014
Twitter has also introduced a "blocked accounts" page to let users see which followers they've decided not to interact with in the past. The page makes it easier not only to unblock someone if your tiff with them has subsided, but also can provide a reference point for reporting abuse. Previously, users had no way of referring back to the accounts they'd blocked. If a user blocked someone in the heat of the moment and then wanted to report abuse later, he or she had to remember the harasser's username -- not always an easy task, particularly if one was the target of a coordinated abuse campaign.
The page will continue to evolve over time, the company said in an official blog post.
In fact, this the first batch of many changes that Twitter will be making to give users more control over the safety of their own accounts said Del Harvey, Twitter's head of trust and safety. "This is not us saying, 'Well, we've done these things, so nothing bad will happen on the Internet now.' And this not us trying to sprain our arms while trying to pat ourselves on the back," Harvey said. "We want to say to people that we are working to improve on this stuff."
Twitter has been criticized heavily in the past for the prevalence of abuse on its free-flowing social network. The firm added a "report abuse" button to its network shortly after British journalist and activist Caroline Criado-Perez faced a flood abuse over her campaign to get author Jane Austen on the 10-pound note. Since then, there's been concern over the harassment of women on Twitter -- such as Zelda Williams, the daughter of late comedian Robin Williams, and several people on both sides of the "Gamergate" controversy that rocked the video game industry over the summer.
But in considering how to stop such harassment on the network, Twitter has come up against its own hardline stance on protecting freedom of expression as it tries to navigate the definition of what qualifies as harassment and what doesn't. Harvey said the company has been working for years on how to balance the thing that makes Twitter tick -- the ability to say whatever you want to the world -- with the very serious issues of stopping abuse to ensure that the network is a safe place for its users.
"We must make sure it's not so easy to engage in abuse, but also not cross the line to make it so that you can't post any content," she said. She said that Twitter will look for ways to "de-incentivize bad behavior" on the site by studying user behavior with the aim of better identifying trolls and discouraging them from engaging in harassment -- though she didn't specify how that might work.
It is highly unlikely that Twitter will ever implement suggestions from some anti-harassment advocates, such as blocking the IP addresses of Twitter users who spout regular abuse. Free speech advocates have noted that method is a bit imprecise and could lead to accidentally blocking whole companies or even libraries from being able to use the social network. Instead, Harvey said that Twitter is working to provide more tools for individual users to customize their safety settings.
"I think one of the biggest components of our philosophy around that is we want users to have control over their experience," she said. "The whole idea of having a blocked accounts page means you can go back and make changes if you want to. You have control as the user." Those sorts of tools are what Twitter users can expect to see more of, she said, as the network continues its fight against online abuse.