Twitter has recently announced that it will be rolling out a new “quality filter” that is designed to “remove all Tweets from your notification timeline that contain threats, offensive or abusive language, duplicate content, or are sent from suspicious accounts.” The “quality filter” is only attached to verified users since they have the most followers and therefore are susceptible to the most abuse, but Twitter has also implemented other anti-harassment tools such as a feature that makes it easier to report abuse to law enforcement. So essentially, this quality filter and other recent features are designed to prevent instances of cyber-bullying and protect user safety.
Cyber-bullying is more and more common as Internet users are shielded by anonymity on the Web. Cyber-bullying is especially present on Twitter. According to data from the Pew Center, Twitter users face many forms of harassment including death threats and threats of sexual abuse and stalking and the victims of this abuse are disproportionately women. There have been several recent high-profile cases of cyber-bullying involving Twitter including #gamergate, the harassment of Robin William’s daughter after his death, and Ashley Judd’s decision to press charges against trolls. These high-profile incidents have been speculatively identified as the impetus for Twitter’s implementation of anti-harassment blocking tools including the “quality filter”.
Twitter initially positioned itself as the “free speech wing of the free speech party”, which meant that they took a neutral view on message content. Twitter’s “neutral view” has seemingly made the company more tolerant of abuse and harassment on their social media site relative to other social media sites. For instance, Twitter is notoriously criticized for its failure to deal with cyber-bullying. In fact, Twitter’s CEO Dick Costolo claimed that “ We [Twitter] suck[s] at dealing with abuse”, apologized for his company’s failure to adequately protect its users from abuse via Twitter, and admitted that cyber-bullying has cost platform users. The “quality filter” and other blocking tools have emerged since Twitter’s CEO has taken personal responsibility for Twitter’s slow response to protecting its users.
Twitter has no legal obligation to censor its users but Twitter is also not under any obligation imposed by the First Amendment to protect free speech. Therefore, as a private company, Twitter may balance free speech against user safety in any manner it so chooses. Given the bad rap Twitter is receiving for not censoring enough and the resulting loss of platform users both low and high-profile, it is likely a good decision for Twitter to implement more anti-harassment blocking tools. Free speech is an admirable value but it likely shouldn’t come at such a high cost to user safety.
Alyssa Walker is an editor on the Michigan Telecommunications and Technology Law review, and a member of the University Michigan Law School class of 2016.