THE BLOG

Twitter Is Having An Identity Crisis, It Needs To Solve Its Hate Problem

06/01/2017 13:28

Twitter is in choppy waters. Struggling to find a buyer, its share price hit record lows this year. With its user base pretty much stagnant, and under intense investor scrutiny, Twitter's purpose and direction has become progressively blurred. Jack Dorsey, its founder, returned as CEO in 2015, taking over from Dick Costolo, but in the year since Twitter's fortunes haven't begun to shine any brighter. Twitter has become infested by bigotry and increasingly it is the source of hate crimes and harassment. Figures such as the comedian Leslie Jones and Stephen Fry, who described Twitter as ''a stalking ground for the sanctimoniously self-righteous'' have abandoned it at some point or other, and new users aren't signing up in any great number.

In an effort to reverse its fortunes Twitter has made changes to try to make the site more enticing. Photos and links are no longer included in the amount of characters and the idea of having a 10,000 character limit has been mooted. Twitter has introduced new features and products, such as Moments and Periscope and has gone as far as to close Vine, but it is still struggling against competitors like Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, where users spend more and more of their time and it isn't solving its fundamental issues. Twitter, beset by hatred and extremism, is neither a nice place to be, nor an efficient use of time.

You don't have to look far to find instances of the kind of intolerance that I'm talking about. News posts about the war in Syria, refugees or Trump's election are often relentlessly followed by white supremacists masquerading under the deceptive 'alt-right tag' or by those fervent souls whose accounts use their anonymity to belittle or harass. Seizure of swathes of Twitter isn't just restricted to racist extremists - ISIS had made Twitter one of its main recruiting tools, influencing those across the world with a reach once estimated at 46,000 Twitter accounts.

I believe that this inhospitable environment goes a long way to explaining why Twitter is struggling. If we stifle debate because we're afraid the reactions will be little other than vitriolic then Twitter is in danger of being little more than brands, celebrity gossip and probably the first declaration of war via social media, if Donald Trump carries on in the same vein when in the Oval Office.

These voices may be a minority, but in the Twittersphere they are vocal and disproportionately loud. Over zealous accounts use their anonymity to say things that would be unthinkable in the physical world. Online abuse is nothing new, nor is it solely restricted to Twitter, but it is stunting Twitter's growth and Twitter knows that this is a problem. In July 2016, Milo Yiannopolous, the self-styled ''fabulous super villain'' was banned for his abuse of Leslie Jones and the site has banned other far-right figureheads such as the white nationalist and head of the unassumingly titled National Policy Institute Richard Spencer, as well as others such as Paul Town and John Rivers, some of whom have moved to Gab, a 'free speech' alternative. In retaliation to the bans, white supremacists have vowed to create thousands of fake accounts purporting to be black people in efforts to subvert and confuse Twitter's management and users.

Other actions taken by Twitter include the power to report messages that ''target people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability or disease'' as well as further rolling out of the mute feature. However, the problem hasn't gone away. These efforts haven't gone far enough and the site is still plagued by hatred.

Twitter is in trouble. Its user base of monthly users is almost static at just over 300m users and consumers spend more time on other social media sites. Its revenues are forecasted to barely rise in 2017 and although potential buyers have been said to include Disney and Salesforce there has still been no offer for the company. Most users aren't extremists, but find the levels of abuse intolerable and so are choosing to spend their time elsewhere. If Twitter wants to reverse its fortunes, it needs to be more proactive in reducing abuse and harassment and it needs to make the process for reporting users more transparent. In December, Jack Dorsey on his handle @jack, asked what the most important things are that Twitter improves in 2017. If Twitter wants to succeed, these should be top of the list.

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