Twitter admits its hands-off approach to harassment isn’t working anymore

Taking the hands-off approach to harassment isn’t working for Twitter anymore.

Until now, the company has placed far more importance on protecting the free speech of its users than protecting its users from cyber abuse. But its sentiments are shifting after Robin Williams’ daughter Zelda quit the platform in response to two users bullying her about her father’s suicide.

The flood of press about the incident shed light on the issue of how Twitter deals with harassment. The company has faced plenty of criticism in the past for its policies on the matter, but it hasn’t done much to change its system.

It looks like all the company needed was a high profile victim to motivate it. In a statement to The Washington Post regarding Zelda Williams, Twitter confirmed it’s figuring out how to fix its cyberbullying systems to handle such issues:

We will not tolerate abuse of this nature on Twitter…We have suspended a number of accounts related to this issue for violating our rules and we are in the process of evaluating how we can further improve our policies to better handle tragic situations like this one. This includes expanding our policies regarding self-harm and private information, and improving support for family members of deceased users.

As Twitter grows up, it has to be a safe place for its users. As the Zelda Williams case shows, it’s not just unknown individuals (or journalists) suffering such harassment anymore. Williams had a big enough megaphone to encourage Twitter to make a change, or at least make a statement that they promise to make a change.

It’s unfortunate that it took a celebrity with such a megaphone for Twitter to do so. Afterall, there’s been plenty of less-famous people who’ve suffered equally vicious bullying on the site, from British journalist Caroline Criado-Perez to Slate author Amanda Hess. In fact, during the #askcostolo CNBC debacle at the end of July, 30 percent of the questions directed at Twitter CEO Dick Costolo were about user privacy and harassment issues, according to Twitter analytics tool Tweetbinder.

I would guess that until now Twitter hasn’t made solving the harassment problem a priority because it’s a huge can of worms. It doesn’t know how to tread the line between free speech and protection. It doesn’t know how to tackle the monumental challenge of moderating more than 500 million tweets a day, so it’s easiest to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Furthermore, doing something big to fix its approach to harassment goes fundamentally against the values of the company. It has always placed a huge emphasis on freedom of speech and expression, at the detriment of user safety and security. As law professor Jeffrey Rosen wrote in The New Republic, Twitter has “explicitly concluded that it wants to be a platform for democracy rather than civility.”

Without company intervention, users who face harassment have hacked their own solutions, like crowdsourcing twitter “block” lists that mute users who send abusive tweets.

These tools are imperfect, transitory solutions. As the Williams’ case shows, it’s only a matter of time before harassment becomes not just a major publicity snafu for the company, but a reason users choose to leave the platform.