Twitter CEO’s Hashtag Q&A Derailed By Users Challenging Online Harassment Policies

CREDIT: AP Photo/Richard Drew

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, uses his mobile phone as he waits for the first shares to get traded on the New York Stock Exchange floor after the company went public in 2013.

A hashtag meant to promote a CNBC interview with Twitter CEO Dick Costolo Tuesday backfired when the online conversation put Costolo and Twitter’s lax online harassment policies in the forefront.

The sponsored hashtag #AskCostolo began morphing into a broader discussion about online harassment and Twitter’s toothless policies shortly after the interview aired. CNBC reported that about a third of the tweets were related to user safety, privacy, and abuse.

Twitter’s online safety terms center around how users should cope with online abuse by blocking rather than dealing with the reported abusers directly, protesters pointed out. Historically, Twitter has been reluctant to remove tweets or delete accounts in fear of violating free speech and compromising the openness of the Web. But users say that approach alienates them and puts the onus on victims to manage threats and abusive behavior online.

Users began talking about their own experiences with online harassment and, when they reported the abuse to Twitter, how the social media site seemingly brushed off the issue:

The public outrage over unchecked online harassment under the #AskCostolo hashtag seemed to mimic another recent viral hashtag, #YesAllWomen. Borne in the aftermath of a mass shooting at the University of California, Santa Barbara in May, #YesAllWomen led a frank conversation about misogyny and the culture of violence against women. But while these conversations surrounding abuse online have become more common, few policy changes are made to address them.

Some critics blame Twitter’s white male-dominated culture and lack of diversity — a charge that reverberates through the tech industry as a whole — for the site’s policies on cyberharassment. Twitter has struggled in the past with addressing online and gender-based harassment. In 2013, the site revised its “block” policy that let accounts that were blocked view and interact with the users who blocked them in the first place. Critics said the move, which was reversed shortly after its debut, put women, people of color and members of the LGBT community at risk.