Last week, former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that he would be stepping down as the company’s CEO. In the post, Dorsey also named Twitter CTO Parag Agrawal as his successor. Agrawal, who has worked at Twitter for 10 years, has been involved in many key Twitter initiatives, from building out AI capabilities in 2014 to working toward Dorsey’s decentralization goals in 2019. But with Dorsey stepping down, many are wondering whether the new CEO will prioritize or ramp up the effort to help the company fight against hate speech and harassment on its platform.
Historically, Twitter has been slow to react to white supremacists using the platform to proliferate hate. Despite Twitter’s policy on hateful conduct that bans harassment and the promotion of or threats of violence, there remains an immense amount of hate speech on the platform, often shared by verifiable white nationalists. Twitter employees and tech writers writing about the issue have pointed out that solutions for dealing with white supremacists on social media are not as easy as they might seem, particularly because AI cannot always effectively identify every instance of hate speech. Despite this, many Twitter users—particularly those who have been targets of racialized or gendered violence themselves—want the platform to do more and act faster. Twitter made headlines in January when the platform banned then-President Donald Trump after repeated violations of their hateful conduct policy—a decision made by Dorsey—but many activists, organizers, and journalists felt the ban was too little, too late, considering the years he was able to spread violent rhetoric to a massive audience on Twitter.
It isn’t just people with huge platforms like right-wing politicians who are abusing Twitter’s policies. Roslyn Talusan, a 29-year-old freelance culture writer based in Toronto, has experienced harassment on Twitter, often from anonymous accounts. In August, Talusan posted a tweet questioning why a white woman would release a cookbook about dumplings and noodles in the midst of the viral #StopAsianHate movement. What ensued was a harassment campaign, including responses from people whose accounts indicated that they believed liberating marginalized people was “akin to white genocide.” Some threatened Talusan, hinting that a “storm” was coming for people like her who perpetuated so-called white genocide. As is common with people being harassed with a high volume of racist hate, Talusan didn’t have the capacity to individually report each tweet, saying “the idea of sitting there and going through every single quote tweet and reply to manually file a report was untenable.”
Talusan isn’t alone. After coming forward about her experience being sexually haraassed by a prominent San Francisco politician, writer Sasha Perigo has received increasing harassment and has been doxxed on Twitter.
“One woman has tweeted about me once a week since Aug. 9,” Perigo said. “She Googled my family and posted my dad’s full name and former employer on Twitter. She’s tracked down and contacted my family friends to try to convince them that I’m lying about my assault.”
Perigo has reported the accounts that harass her, but said that each time, Twitter hasn’t done anything.
“On several occasions, I received automatic email responses seconds after my report that the account did not violate Twitter policy,” Perigo said.
Talusan acknowledges that harassment is a systemic issue in tech and that solutions are hard to implement, but insists that there is more Twitter can do. She pointed out that in September 2021, Twitter banned the editor-in-chief of Off Colour, a verified publication, for calling the Canadian prime minister a “spineless wench.” According to the publication, Twitter has automatically banned each and every one of the editor-in-chief’s new accounts for “evading a permanent suspension.”
When users see something like this, it becomes clear that Twitter has the capability to protect its users to a greater extent than it has, but it only utilizes this power in certain scenarios and doesn’t expand safety efforts to include marginalized people. For example, just one day after Dorsey’s resignation, Twitter announced a new safety feature that would prevent users from sharing private images, videos, or personal information of people without their consent. This policy has been in effect for only a few days and is already being used to target journalists, activists, or organizers, who post videos of white supremacist violence. In fact, the white supremacists Twitter users who have been critical of the platform in the past are using the report feature to mass report journalists, anti-fascists, and anti-racists for retroactive violations of this new feature. These reports have resulted in videos and pictures of white supremacists and extremists being removed and the locking of accounts that share them. Twitter users have noted that if there is a way to lock the accounts of anti-fascists at this speed, there is a way to curb racist hate speech on the platform.
Looking to the future, people like Talusan are skeptical that a new CEO will bring the kind of change marginalized Twitter users need to be safe on the platform.
“I’m not sure that this problem began and ends with Dorsey, and I don’t think a new CEO is enough,” Talusan said. “The issue has always been how these platforms by nature enable white supremacists to mobilize the way they do … The priorities of the business have to shift, and I’m not sure that any new CEO would be able to do that.”
Perigo agrees, saying, “It’s clear, based on Twitter’s longstanding harassment problem, that Jack Dorsey did not take curbing abuse on Twitter seriously. I hope the new CEO will change course, but I’m not optimistic.”
The changes to Twitter leadership will contribute to a change in the priorities of the company, especially with regard to safety on the platform. But if this new private media feature is any indication, it proves Twitter is a long way from implementing the kind of changes it needs to make the platform safe for BIPOC, queer people, disabled people, or trans folks. Until they make changes, Perigo says, “Twitter is complicit in my abuse.”