A Celebrity Has Exposed Twitter’s Serious User Harassment Issue

“A Personal Hell”

This time one year ago, the nation was belly laughing at the latest Ghostbusters reboot featuring an all-female cast. One of the stars of the movie was Saturday Night Live‘s Leslie Jones: an actress and comedian with a Twitter following of nearly 700,000.

Some Ghostbusters fans weren’t happy about the movie’s all-female cast, and they began bullying all four of the film’s stars—targeting Jones with particular ire.

Hopper Stone/Columbia Pictures

Jones was overwhelmed by the abuse as soon as Ghostbusters opened. She sent out one tweet detailing just some of the vulgar language and images that she’d received. “I’m tryin to figure out what human means,” she wrote.

By that evening, Jones said she felt like she was in “a personal hell.”

Clearly, the abuse was taking its toll.

Jack to the Rescue…?

The very next day, Jones began helping Twitter identify all of the users that had directed racist and sexist insults and images towards her account. Twitter co-founder @Jack, reached out to help.

Twitter quickly banned many of Jones’ abusers and removed their tweets. However, this offended some users, who claimed that Twitter was practicing “feudal” censorship.

Jack attempted to clarify why some individuals were banned:

A Year Later, Little Has Changed

Unfortunately, these efforts were limited. Exactly a year after Jones told the Twitterverse that she felt like she was living in “a personal hell,” BuzzFeed News released a scathing report detailing the issues with the social media site’s approach to bullies.

Tech and culture writer Charlie Warzel spoke with a number of abused and harassed Twitter users. One user named Maggie received an image of her own face in “the crosshairs of a gun sight.” That user also shared Maggie’s home address via Twitter.

Maggie reported this behavior to the site, but only received a canned response saying that moderators “found that there was no violation of Twitter’s Rules regarding abusive behavior.”

Maggie’s experience isn’t unique, as BuzzFeed discovered while surveying victims of Twitter abuse.

One respondent wrote, “It only adds to the humiliation when you pour your heart out and you get an automated message saying, ‘We don’t consider this offensive enough.’”

Twitter’s Response

Twitter released this response to BuzzFeed‘s criticism:

“Twitter has undertaken a number of updates, through both our technology and human review, to reduce abusive content and give people tools to have more control over their experience on Twitter. We’ve also been working hard to communicate with our users more transparently about safety. We are firmly committed to continuing to improve our tools and processes, and regularly share updates at @TwitterSafety.”

Many of the tools cited in the statement were released late last year.

A More Rigorous Approach

BuzzFeed concluded their report by citing writer Sady Doyle, who had received the same canned response from Twitter when she’d reported a user who had sent her an image of a handgun. Doyle shared her experience in a tweet:

After the writer’s tweet attracted more than 6,000 shares, Twitter’s team removed the offending user.

“When this stuff happens to me,” Doyle told BuzzFeed, “I have a platform, so it’s easy to publicize — but other people aren’t that lucky.”

Maggie, who received the image of her face in the crosshairs of a gun, eventually had her threatening abuser banned from the site but not until a former U.S. Ambassador to Russia with more than 200,000 followers got involved.

BuzzFeed quoted a poignant response to Doyle’s tweet: “Basically nothing is worth a ban, unless you get enough people tweeting about it.”

Leslie Jones, A Year Later

Prior to the Rio Olympics, Jones visited the Late Show to speak about her experience with Twitter.

“The insults didn’t hurt me,” the actor told host Seth Meyer. “What scared me was the injustice of a gang of people jumping against you for such a sick cause.”

Jones appreciated that Twitter eventually stepped up to help confront the “gross” and “mean” messages she’d received, but she wanted to clap back against a common response to the so-called censorship:

“Hate speech and freedom of speech…” the comedian said before pausing to hold up two fingers, “Two different things.”

It’s clear that Twitter is still sorting out the difference.

Amidst the vitriol and hate, a number of Twitter users posted positive messages for Jones. You can see some of these tributes to Jones at the end of her interview with Meyers above.

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