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Mute It: Twitter Takes Major Step In Fighting Online Abuse

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Ever since social media has emerged as a major player on the world stage there have been significant problems with online harassment and bullying, and a grey area between eliminating harassment while still allowing free speech. A 2015 article from The New Yorker states that “on social media, the posts are often public, but the forum itself is not”, attributing regulation of harassment online to the company itself, not the government. This is where the social media sites, like Twitter, need to step up their game in terms of making their site a safe place for all users.

The Washington Post published on article on November 15, 2016 reporting that Twitter had made a huge step when it comes to cyber harassment by introducing an automatic “mute” button to fight trolls and online abuse.

Unlike previous “mute” functions on Twitter, where the user had to physically go to a specific account and click “mute”, therefore telling Twitter to not show the user that person’s tweets, this “mute” feature takes a whole different, and easier, approach. The new tool to fight harassment allows users to “weed out harassing words and phrases from their notifications” (Tsukayama). So basically, if you use the “mute” feature and let Twitter know you don’t want to see a certain word or phrase that you deem offensive, it will block all tweets with those words from entering your timeline.

Other social media sites, most prominently Instagram, have recently integrated this feature into their app or websites function. In July, the Washington Post reported that Instagram would be allowing users to “switch off comments on their accounts” that they deemed offensive. The new feature was designed to let users “take the mood of their account into their own hands and weed out comments that use term that account holders find personally offensive”.

I believe that Instagram’s initial implementation of this feature, and Twitter’s current decision for it, really goes along with what we know as social media and free speech. Allowing users to remove words and posts that are personally offensive to them cuts down on personal harassment while allowing free speech to continue. What is offensive to you might not be offensive to me, and these features make sure that we can filter those.

Why now, Twitter? Many users may be asking this question on the timing of this decision. The Washington Post article from this month states that “Twitter’s move comes after an election cycle that saw, among other troubling incidents, aprominent anti-Semitic movementon the network. The company has been repeatedly criticized for not moving quickly enough to combat harassment on its site.”

A representative from Twitter commented on the company’s criticism of not moving fast enough to prevent harassment by adding that “the company is trying to make sure that it has tools to shut down harassment on the site without crossing the line into limiting speech.”

Regarding Twitters new feature, Washington Post reports that, along with their new policy, Twitter is also implementing “an ongoing training course on how to recognize abusive behavior, Harvey said, Twitter has put together a training program on the historical and cultural context around particular types of harassment - types of anti-Semitism, for example. She said Twitter will also focus more closely on keeping its staff up to date with the evolving language of hate on its network.” I think this is a big step in terms of online harassment because it is opening to door to conversation and education on harassment in an age where anyone can sit behind a computer and publish hateful things.

Overall, I believe that social media sites such as Instagram and Twitter are taking big, productive steps to fight online harassment. With the quick emergence of online media many companies are overwhelmed with the amount of policy they must implement to keep their sites harassment-free, while still allowing free speech. It is a very grey area and I believe that by allowing users to customize their online experience and decide what they wish to block from their timelines really opens new doors to fight harassment online. 

Check out this video from Complex News about Twitter’s “mute” feature:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EDN_VPJohiE

Emily Brown (@EmilyRives16)

Emerging Media Graduate Student

Loyola University Maryland