Cyberbullying continues to drag Twitter down

Hate speech and bullying are major problems for Twitter, and it's time for the company to decide, once and for all, if it's on the side of the abusers or the abused.

The cyberbullying problem at Twitter is so bad that critics are starting to suggest it could bring the company down.

On Thursday, a rumor about a Twitter shutdown in early 2017 spread faster than wildfire in Southern California. Users chimed in en masse, making #SaveTwitter a trending hashtag that spawned memes, jokes and ridicule. By midday, Twitter had to awkwardly deny reports of its death.

[Related: Twitter needs to stop the harassment]

The company faces many challenges, including sagging user growth and continued financial loss. However, the hate speech, bullying and mob mentality that run rampant on the platform are problems Twitter has battled for roughly a decade. "We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we've sucked at it for years," wrote former CEO Dick Costolo in an internal memo obtained by TheVerge.com 18 months ago. "It's no secret and the rest of the world talks about it every day. We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day."

Abuse a core feature on Twitter?

As the #SaveTwitter drama unfolded, BuzzFeed.com published a scathing report detailing Twitter's 10-year failure to address harassment on the site. The report, which is based on interviews with high-level former employees, reads: "The social network's long history with abuse has been fraught with inaction and organizational disarray. Fenced in by an abiding commitment to free speech above all else and a unique product that makes moderation difficult and trolling almost effortless, Twitter has, over a chaotic first decade marked by shifting business priorities and institutional confusion, allowed abuse and harassment to continue to grow as a chronic problem and perpetual secondary internal priority."

Abuse isn't just a "bug" in Twitter's service, according to the report, it's a fundamental feature.

Twitter denied the former employees' allegations but declined to address specifics or share plans to combat the abuse. "We feel there are inaccuracies in the details and unfair portrayals but rather than go back and forth with BuzzFeed, we are going to continue our work on making Twitter a safer place," the company said in a statement. "There is a lot of work to do but please know we are committed, focused, and will have updates to share soon."

[Related: Social media sites still don't do enough to combat abuse]

Those "updates" can't come soon enough for Twitter and its 313 million monthly active users, who are increasingly frustrated by the company's excuses and inaction. The latest reports of Twitter's death may be greatly exaggerated, but the recent rumor is rooted in an undeniable truth: cyberbullying and abuse on Twitter is getting worse, and it could eventually kill the company.

Twitter could quickly limit the bullying with new filters and required user-identity verification, but such measures would cut into the company's already abysmal bottom line. By failing to act, however, Twitter makes a conscious decision to allow harassment on its network. Even if systemic bullying doesn't bring the company all the way down, it will certainly drag Twitter further into the gutter.

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Matt Kapko

CIO (US)
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