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Twitter executive: Here’s how we’re trying to stop abuse while preserving free speech

Open discussion doesn't mean much if some people are afraid to take part.

Twitter’s logo (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

Twitter’s mission is to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers. This is also the essence of freedom of expression — the idea that everyone has a voice and the right to use it.

Whether in Tahrir Square or in our own back yards, used for debating the most contested of public concerns or for sharing the most personal of revelations, we want Twitter to continue to be a place where the expression of diverse viewpoints is encouraged and aired. To do that, we have to keep Twitter safe for the widest possible range of information and opinions to be shared, even when we ourselves vehemently disagree with some of them.

Balancing both aspects of this belief — welcoming diverse perspectives while protecting our users — requires vigilance, and a willingness to make hard choices. That is an ideal that we have at times failed to live up to in recent years. As some of our users have unfortunately experienced firsthand, certain types of abuse on our platform have gone unchecked because our policies and product have not appropriately recognized the scope and extent of harm inflicted by abusive behavior. Even when we have recognized that harassment is taking place, our response times have been inexcusably slow and the substance of our responses too meager.

This is, to put it mildly, not good enough. Freedom of expression means little as our underlying philosophy if we continue to allow voices to be silenced because they are afraid to speak up. We need to do a better job combating abuse without chilling or silencing speech.

[Twitter’s battle against abuse has high stakes for the company]

I’m often inspired by the vigorous debates on controversial issues that occur on Twitter, but I’ve also been seriously troubled by the plight of some of our users who are completely overwhelmed by those who are trying to silence healthy discourse in the name of free expression. At times, this takes the form of hateful speech in tweets directed at women or minority groups; at others, it takes the form of threats aimed to intimidate those who take a stand on issues. These users often hide behind the veil of anonymity on Twitter and create multiple accounts expressly for the purpose of intimidating and silencing people. We have seen this type of behavior time and time again, including during GamerGate and other incidents involving both public figures and other individuals, so we are changing our approach to this problem, in some ways that won’t be readily apparent and in others that will be. In addition to improving users’ ability to control their own Twitter experiences, in recent months we have invested heavily in tools and enforcement solutions that enable us to better detect, act on and limit the reach of abusive content. We have also tripled the size of the team whose job is to protect users, which has allowed us to respond to five times the user complaints while reducing the turnaround time to a fraction of what it was not long ago.

We are also overhauling our safety policies to give our teams a better framework from which to protect vulnerable users, such as banning the posting of non-consensual intimate images (explained by The Post here) as well as expanding our definition of “abuse” to ban indirect threats of violence. While we have made significant progress, there is more we can do, and our commitment to ensuring safety for our users will continue to be a priority.

But safety is not an end in and of itself. If not thoughtfully applied, safety tools and policies can undermine freedom and relevance on Twitter as much as abuse can. Twitter is composed of the expressions of hundreds of millions of people from all walks of life and from around the planet. At times, that expression is uplifting, inspirational, thought-provoking and, indeed, world-changing. At other times, it can be confounding, frustrating, provocative and even profoundly offensive to a great many of our users. All of this is a reflection of the diversity of people and opinions around the world.

It is not our role to be any sort of arbiter of global speech. However, we will take a more active role in ensuring that differences of opinion do not cross the line into harassment. We are under no illusion that there is a single solution to ensure this outcome, nor that we will never make mistakes.

We know that our efforts to protect both the safety of our users and their right to express themselves freely will create tensions that can be difficult to resolve. But those difficulties simply acknowledge the importance of those underlying values. These are tough issues that challenge Twitter and the Internet generally, and I’m proud to work for a company that continually strives to solve them. The safety of our users is part of and inseparable from our mission at Twitter and our unwavering support for freedom of expression.