Technology

Hiawatha Bray | Tech Lab

Keeping Twitter clean — and fair

Kacper Pempel/Illustration/REUTERS/File

Now that right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos has been exiled from Twitter, the social network has become a little calmer and friendlier. But is it also less fair?

Yiannopoulos’s defenders say his real crime is being a Donald Trump supporter fallen afoul of political correctness. I think his crime is being a jerk. Yet Twitter’s incoherent and inconsistent policies toward online abuse were bound to generate a backlash sooner or later, and here it comes.

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Yiannopoulos was given the boot in late July, for his part in the harassment of Leslie Jones, a black actress starring in the new “Ghostbusters” film. Among other things, Yiannopoulos retransmitted racist, antigay, and anti-Semitic “fake tweets” designed to look like Jones had sent them. She hadn’t, but Yiannopoulos spread them around anyway. “Don’t tell me some mischievous internet rascal made them up!” he tweeted later.

Jones received hundreds of racist messages, some including images of gorillas. Yiannopoulos didn’t generate the worst messages himself, but his inflammatory tweets about Jones, fired off to 390,000 followers, probably helped whip up the frenzy. A horrified Jones said she was leaving Twitter. Instead, the company permanently banned Yiannopoulos.

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Neither Twitter nor Yiannopoulos responded to my requests for comment, but after reviewing Yiannopoulos’s relentless nastiness toward Jones, I’d say his banishment was well deserved.

But Yiannopoulos and his defenders claim that it’s his right-of-center politics and his support for GOP presidential candidate Trump that really caused his ouster. They insist that Twitter trolls who trash conservatives can be as crude as they wish, with no penalty.

For instance, in April, singer Azealia Banks published several filthy tweets urging a sexual assault against former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. Twitter issued a statement saying that the messages did not violate its standards. But a month later, Twitter banned Banks after she hurled racist insults at pop singer Zayn Malik.

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It’s not unlike the recent outcry against Facebook, where an anonymous employee claimed that network’s Trending Topics news service stifled stories with a conservative slant while boosting liberal viewpoints.

If Twitter is trying to stamp out conservative voices, it’s doing a rotten job. Hordes of prominent righties use the service every day. Trump has 10.6 million Twitter followers, while GOP Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has about 775,000 followers, about the same as talk show host Laura Ingraham. Even the notorious conservative flamethrower and Trump supporter Ann Coulter boasts nearly a million followers.

Still, critics allege that conservatives who step over the line are especially likely to get slapped down. This suspicion was ignited back in February, when prominent conservative blogger Robert Stacy McCain was ousted from Twitter. McCain wields a scathing keyboard, but what exactly did he say that got him banned? Twitter never identified the offensive messages, to McCain or to anyone else. In effect, the company said, “It was awful — just take our word for it.”

McCain’s ouster occurred not long after Twitter set up its Trust and Safety Council, an advisory body created to help the company crack down on online harassment. The council includes about 40 organizations. Several, including Feminist Frequency and the gay rights group GLAAD, are distinctly left-wing.

But the original roster didn’t contain any right-wing groups. No wonder Twitter’s conservative critics howled that the fix was in. Also missing were organizations committed to defending freedom of speech. The American Civil Liberties Union isn’t on board. Neither is the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group that challenges censorship on college campuses.

It seems Twitter listened. In June, the company added a new member to the council — the Network of Enlightened Women, an organization of conservative female college students. Still, Twitter should do more to reassure users, for reasons of commerce as well as justice.

Twitter has 313 million users per month, 66 million in the United States. But that number grew a mere 3 percent in the past year. Twitter is losing money: $107 million in the second quarter alone, and its stock has declined 40 percent in value since last year. To appease the advertisers who pay the bills, Twitter needs millions more users. So it can’t afford to alienate anybody, regardless of politics.

With its 1.7 billion monthly users, Facebook didn’t have to kiss up to conservatives. But it did. The company’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg met with conservative activists and followed up with changes meant to reduce the risk of slanted news. Zuckerberg’s quick response capped the volcano.

Twitter has every right to enforce civility standards. It’s good business, too. Unfettered rage and vulgarity will scare off lots of potential users. But for many business people and political activists, Twitter is almost as important as the telephone. Imagine if AT&T could switch off your service anytime, without having to say why.

The solution is consistency and transparency. Twitter ought to reach out to the right and expand its Trust and Safety Council to represent a broader range of views. The company needs better software and better-trained human monitors to quash online abuse, no matter the source. And it needs detailed guidelines so users will know exactly where the red lines are.

Twitter will never be entirely calm and friendly, but it should be fair.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.
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