After Racists Harass Leslie Jones Off Twitter, The Site Finally Acts

Leslie Jones is seen at the Los Angeles Premiere of Columbia Pictures’ “Ghostbusters” in Los Angeles. CREDIT: BLAIR RAUGHLEY/INVISION FOR SONY/AP IMAGES
Leslie Jones is seen at the Los Angeles Premiere of Columbia Pictures’ “Ghostbusters” in Los Angeles. CREDIT: BLAIR RAUGHLEY/INVISION FOR SONY/AP IMAGES

Twitter is on an anti-hate speech tear, suspending multiple accounts associated with racist and sexist messages targeting Ghostbusters’ star Leslie Jones earlier this week. Chief among them was conservative critic and Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos.

Yiannopoulos, who gained popularity during the Gamergate movement, is a polarizing figure known for making blatantly racist and misogynistic comments. Regarding his Twitter suspension, the conservative writer said he was removed because of his sexual orientation and political views.

“Gays are always canaries in the coal mine. This has given them the excuse they needed because [Leslie Jones] is a black woman,” Yiannopoulos told CNN Money. “Twitter has just died as a free speech platform.”

Yiannopoulos was no fan of the new Ghostbusters movie, calling it a “film acting as standard bearer for the social justice left … full of female characters that are simply stand-ins for men plus a black character worthy of a minstrel show,” in a recent column titled “Teenage Boys With Tits: Here’s My Problem With Ghostbusters” that critiqued the movie.

Jones called out Yiannopoulos for inciting the barrage of abusive tweets Monday after encouraging users to send pictures of apes to her.

Yiannopoulos’ fans also hacked her account and fabricated homophobic tweets targeting him.

The breakout star was supposed to be celebrating the movie’s $46 million box office success during its opening weekend. Instead, the comedian has been fending off a barrage of racist tweets.

But the harassment, which ranged from racial epithets to pictorial comparisons to apes, escalated to the point where Jones felt as if she was “in a personal hell,” and decided to quit the platform altogether. It’s unclear whether Jones will permanently leave Twitter, but before she departed, she articulated a growing frustration with the platform: It does nothing to prevent or protect users from being deluged with hateful messages.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted at Jones to let her know that he was monitoring the situation and invited her to direct message him. Shortly after, the site began removing accounts.

Twitter hasn’t responded to ThinkProgress’ request for more details on the breadth of the crackdown, but released a statement saying that it has been removing problematic accounts over the last 48 hours.

“We’ve seen an uptick in the number of accounts violating these policies and have taken enforcement actions against these accounts, ranging from warnings that also require the deletion of tweets violating our policies to permanent suspension,” a spokesman told the New York Times.

Jones is the latest — and possibly most high-profile — Twitter power user to quit the platform specifically because the site seemingly has not taken pervasive racial, ethnic, or gendered abuse seriously. Last month, New York Times editor Jon Weisman left Twitter after receiving a slew of anti-Semitic messages largely from users linked to the alt-right, a fringe extremist group that adopts white supremacist and neo-Nazi values.

Many of Jones’ attackers were also connected to alt-right and Gamergate supporters, whose numbers have increased in tandem with Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy.

The vicious attacks on Jones’ race and gender illustrate a perfect storm of what women and people of color with opinions regularly experience on the internet, but perhaps more importantly they demonstrate that all of Twitter’s policy changes to address its harassment problem aren’t working.

Technology’s main purpose is to make life less cumbersome. With electricity and an internet connection, humans can make friends and have vigorous debate across continents. But those wondrous advancements also come with abuses that are seen in everything from Uber to Microsoft’s artificially intelligent teen chatbot Tay — a few malcontents can pervert a technology’s intent and purpose.

The typical response, as Twitter has demonstrated this week, is reactive — content moderation, shutting down abusive accounts. But that approach only goes so far, making Twitter’s main challenge creating a platform where everyone can engage and expect to be protected from hateful content at the outset.

Twitter has come a long way in terms of how it has worked to improve the platform: making it easier for users to report abuse and forbidding hateful content was needed. In addition to blocking, users can mute or filter messages. The company also diversified its board of directors to include more women and a person of color — a move that will almost certainly bring new perspectives to how abuse and offensive content is handled.

But just like Twitter’s sorely-needed diversity changes and improved policies didn’t prevent Jones’ online attacks, removing bad actors won’t either. Because nothing will change until the technology does.

Twitter’s reporting tools, while welcome, are add-ons to a decade-old platform and best suited for users who are regularly inundated with @mentions — both benign and abusive — and require the user to be active in curating them.

Even on the best day, good policy doesn’t prevent someone’s Twitter mentions from quickly filling up with vitriol in reaction to an opinion, or in Jones’ case, her existence.

Celebrity, either earned or by association, doesn’t inoculate the likes of Jones from online harassment. Zelda Williams was bombarded with mutilated images of her recently deceased father Robin Williams shortly after news broke of his suicide in 2014. Twitter also cracked down on users after Williams vowed to never use the site again.

While Twitter has become swifter in its response to online abuse for high-profile individuals, what hasn’t changed is the fundamental technology behind it. Twitter still retains its open nature it debuted with in 2006 that puts all users on the same plane. Everyone has equal access to directly criticize a public figure as they do to former classmates. Twitter’s structure has helped give rise to online activism, such as #BringBackOurGirls and #BlackLivesMatter, and spark revolutions like the Arab Spring.

But because the technology doesn’t assume that hateful speech exists in tandem with vigorous debate, individuals are responsible for containing and reporting what can amount to hundreds to thousands of messages attacking their race, creed, and gender every day. So if Twitter really wants to keep the Leslie Jones and others from exiting, it’s going to need to work on new tools that preempt the abuse that has become a mainstay in life on the internet.