Attack on Ghostbusters’ Leslie Jones proves Twitter needs solutions, not excuses (update)

Yesterday, Ghostbusters star and Saturday Night Live cast member Leslie Jones was pelted with abuse from racist, sexist and misogynistic tweeters.

The comedian, who’s used to dealing with some level of hate from years of performing stand-up, reached out to Twitter staff for help, asking them to delete the accounts of the worst abusers and showcasing what was being sent to her by retweeting some of the offenders to her 189,000 followers. By the end of the night, around midnight ET, the comedian was defeated and said as much through her account.

Twitter finally responded, saying in a statement to BuzzFeed that “this type of abuse is not permitted on Twitter,” and added that the company was continuing to invest heavily in tools to help curb the abusive behavior some of its user base has become notorious for.

Except for the fact that, and excuse my French here, that’s bullshit.

This isn’t a new problem

Leslie Jones is hardly the first star to be targeted by abusive users on the platform. American Horror Story‘s Emma Roberts deleted her account after people started aggressively tweeting at her, and major figures within other industries have also left the social network after continuous abuse. In each scenario, the people involved and their supporters on Twitter tweeted at the company’s security team (which can be done by tweeting @support) and reported hundreds of accounts that were sending vile messages.

This is far from being the first case of racist, sexist trolls coming out to attack one person.

In a few cases, users were banned. For the most part, however, those sending their desperate pleas to Twitter, asking the company to do something, were met with a response saying, “We were unable to take action on the account given that we could not determine a clear violation of the Twitter rules.” Part of this has to do with Twitter’s archaic system of banning an offending user — a link must be provided to the abusive tweet in question, and considering it can take longer than 24 hours to review a case, there’s a good chance that tweet will be deleted long before the support team gets around to it.

Perhaps even worse, this round of attacks came from some of the same people who have been responsible for dozens of high-profile women within the gaming community being chased off of Twitter or left to deal with ongoing, daily abuse: those most active within the GamerGate community, who have helped champion the failure of the Ghostbusters revamp since it was announced.

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The cast of Sony’s new movie has had to deal with misogynistic tweets and threats being sent to them since before they started filming, and although they’ve all spoken out about it — as has writer/director Paul Feig — little has been done to curb the level of abuse they’ve received online for months. Whenever a trailer came out, the comment section would fill with hateful insults and the actual video would be downvoted by a group of people whose core mission was to stop people from seeing the film. The first trailer became one of the most downvoted in history, and while it wasn’t the best trailer of all time, it certainly didn’t meet the criteria to be considered “the worst.”

Yesterday, Breitbart personality and attack dog Milo Yiannopoulos published his review of the film, which was preempted with a Periscope livestream — watched by 20,000 people — that included vicious, vile and derogatory comments about each of the cast members, including Jones. In his official review, called “Teenage Boys with Tits,” Yiannopoulos wrote that Jones’ character was the “worst of the lot” and “spectacularly unappealing, even relative to the rest of the odious cast.”

The rest of his review contains other repulsive comments about the cast’s appearance, and Yiannopoulos’ army of dedicated followers — who also attacked women like Anita Sarkeesian, Brianna Wu and Zoe Quinn — took it upon themselves to launch an attack on Jones, flocking to various forums popular within the GamerGate community to post their thoughts.

All of which led to the string of abuse — from accounts previously reported for abusive behavior — that Jones tried to get away from. Jones tweeted multiple times to the Twitter support team, sent emails and even asked her followers to help out with reporting when the abuse reached its peak. But it took Twitter hours to even respond to the comedian, a verified user and well-known celebrity whose onslaught of harassment caught the attention of the world before the attention of the people who should have been there in the first place. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey eventually reached out to Jones, asking her to direct-message him about the situation, something most users would never get the chance to do.

By the end of the night, Jones tweeted this:

All Twitter could say was that it was looking into new methods of stopping this from happening again, but that’s just not true. Following GamerGate and the level of abuse directed at prominent female figures within the industry two years ago, designers and programmers came together at conferences around the country to come up with ways to help deter abuse. These ideas have been sent to Twitter’s team time and time again, but nothing has been done to follow up or implement them. Instead, Twitter has been relying on the same methods it’s been using for years, and the unfortunate fact remains that those techniques never worked and still don’t work.

Danilo Campos, social impact technical director at Github, wrote a list of possible suggestions Twitter could implement to curb the abuse, but nothing ever came of it. Some of the suggestions include:

Block all users whose accounts are less than 30 days old. This is easy—it takes an arrow out of the quiver of serial harassers who use alternate accounts generated as needed.

Block all users whose follow counts are less than whatever threshold users set. Google used the social proof of “back links” to establish credibility and ranking for content over 16 years ago. This is old hat by now. Users should be able to block anyone who can’t convince other people to follow them. Rings of followers created just to subvert this will have to be detected.

Block any user who has been blocked by more than N people I’m following. Let’s also share the load. If all your friends block someone there’s a decent chance you’ll want to also.

Jones’ case is going to receive quite a bit of attention for multiple reasons: The tweets were absolutely vile, there’s already a large amount of controversy surrounding Ghostbusters and, most importantly, she’s a celebrity. Although some people have criticized the attention that Jones has received while thousands of others’ cases have gone unnoticed, the level of attention being paid to her case is crucial in getting Twitter to finally do something..

You’re all out of apologies and excuses, Twitter

Even with the heightened attention on Jones’ case, the fact remains that Twitter doesn’t know what to do to curb abuse. And if Twitter can’t figure out how to deal with a crisis like this, one that involves an actor of this caliber, how can the company say that it’s going to help out those with fewer followers — people who aren’t verified and who don’t have media organizations watching their accounts?

The attack on Jones didn’t just reiterate that Twitter has an abuse problem, but reconfirmed that Twitter has a response problem. Twitter doesn’t reward its users for being a part of the service, and can hardly defend them from being harassed by armies of men with nothing better to do than attack someone for being a woman, for being a person of color, or for identifying as LGBT.

You’re all out of apologies and excuses, Twitter. You need to take action and you need to take it now.

Update: On Tuesday evening, after the publication of this opinion, Yiannopoulos was banned by Twitter from the service. His suspended account means his thousands of tweets no longer appear on the site, either. A statement from Twitter did not refer to Yiannopoulos by name but did acknowledge the harassment he has long been accused of.

“People should be able to express diverse opinions and beliefs on Twitter,” Twitter said. “But no one deserves to be subjected to targeted abuse online, and our rules prohibit inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others.”

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