I’m Not Praising Twitter For Wanting To Eradicate Trolls Until They Actually Do It

Two weeks ago, writer Lindy West appeared on This American Life to talk about internet trolls, confronting one particularly cruel troll of the hundreds who verbally abuse her online, and the torrential downpour of abuse that comes to those who use the Internet, from writers to casual users. The heartbreaking interview quickly went viral, even outside of feminist media circles, so much so that it even forced Twitter CEO Dick Costolo to acknowledge in an internal company memo that Twitter needs to do a better job protecting its users and eradicating trolls.

The memo from Costolo, which was obtained last night by the Verge, came about after a Twitter employee in an internal employee forum asked if anything could be done about the trolls, while referencing West’s TIL interview, and her subsequent follow-up in the Guardian. Costolo replied quickly, with the following:

We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years. 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.

I’m frankly ashamed of how poorly we’ve dealt with this issue during my tenure as CEO. It’s absurd. There’s no excuse for it. I take full responsibility for not being more aggressive on this front. It’s nobody else’s fault but mine, and it’s embarrassing.

We’re going to start kicking these people off right and left and making sure that when they issue their ridiculous attacks, nobody hears them.

Everybody on the leadership team knows this is vital.

He added a few more comments the next day, taking personal responsibility for the issue multiple times in his message, and assuring that he would try to help clear the gridlock surrounding Twitter’s slow response to internet abuse and make it his first priority. Given the overwhelming issues Twitter has very publicly had with trolls in recent memory alone — #GamerGate, the bullying of Robin Williams’ daughter Zelda, among many others — this is a much-needed stand from Costolo, who has remained notoriously silent on the subject in the past. The only problem is that for now, Costolo’s “leaked” memo is only serving to be a bit of good PR, conveniently the day before having a Q4 earnings call with Twitter’s investors, at a time when Twitter has been struggling to gain more users and turn an actually profit profit post-IPO.

Optics or not, of course it’s a good thing that Twitter is trying to take a firmer stand on trolls and online harassment. Initiatives like making reporting abuse easier and working with advocacy groups to investigate gender-based harassment (both are steps Twitter has taken) is all well and good, but violent harassment is so notorious on the site, that those efforts have seemed futile as well. Writers, feminists and activists, most often women, regularly share screenshots of the violently vitriolic hate tweets they’ve gotten alongside the email they received from Twitter after reporting such threats; all too often, Twitter’s response to such abusive threats is that they aren’t a real issue. So when Costolo says he’s going to resolve this issue, my reaction is to say I’ll believe it when I see it, and not any sooner, when it’s just another thing Twitter says it does, that in actuality achieves nothing.

Fighting the problem is hard. What do you do to stop trolls? To use a phrase borrowed from Jezebel, back when they were dealing with the problem of troll commenters leaving continual rape GIFs in their commenter sections, dealing with trolls is “like playing whack-a-mole with a sociopathic Hydra.” Journalist Simon Owens offered a few solutions today, which included invisible bans (where a user’s tweets are banned so no one else can see them, but the user himself is unaware they’ve been banned) as well as lifetime bans, more staff on the response team, and proper law enforcement education on how to police internet threats. These are all great ideas! None are perfect in theory, but creating a plan of attack never had to be perfect just for Twitter to undertake it — all they needed to do was try to put some kind of plan into action. I want to believe that whatever woke up Costolo to this problem is important enough for him to do something about it, and swiftly, but I’m not going to laud him for saying some good words in a company memo, without seeing what he actually does to protect those of us who use his product and suffer at the hands of it at the same time.

TIL and the Guardian are not the first times West has written frankly about the backlash-laden internet. Nor is she the first writer to do so — Amanda Hess’s piece on “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet” is equally bittersweet and galvanizing, and many other writers are banging the drum of Twitter’s failure to protect its users. None of this is new information. So why did it take Twitter so long to answer its call? And now that we’re here, what is Dick Costolo really going to do about it?