Twitter Tests New Policy That Warns Users Before They Tweet Offensive Language
In an effort to curb “offensive and hurtful language” on Twitter, the platform announced a new test policy that aims to warn users replying to a tweet with vulgar language. Twitter said it will send a warning prompt designed to make the social media user rethink their choice of words before they hit send.
“We’re trying to encourage people to rethink their behavior and rethink their language before posting because they often are in the heat of the moment and they might say something they regret,” Twitter’s global head of site policy for trust and safety, Sunita Saligram, told Reuters. This move, which has been equated by some social media users to thought policing, is quite antithetical to Twitter’s fundamental objective of functioning as a mass-texting site that bolsters translating personal thoughts to a tweet in a no frills, rapid-fire way.
In the last 14 years, Twitter has come a long way from its initial raison d’être. Now, it functions as a live news source, a professional hub for journalists, academics and politicians alike, and unfortunately, one of the biggest outlets for fake news propaganda and cyber abuse. A 2018 Amnesty International report shows women are abused on Twitter every 30 seconds, with racism, sexism and homophobia endemic in the social media platform.
In India, the watchdog organization found women from marginalized groups, especially Dalits and religious minorities, are relentlessly subjected to abuse. One of the women surveyed included Shazia Ilmi from the Bharatiya Janata Party, who said “The price [of being a politician on Twitter] includes being trolled incessantly, being the victim of online harassment, having a lot of remarks passed about what I look like, my marital status, why I have or don’t have children, etc. — all the filthiest things you can think of.” She added, “If they don’t like my strong opinions, they do not remark on my work but call me a ‘whore’ in every language that is used in India.”
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While Twitter’s safety guidelines condemn abuse, hateful conduct and glorification of violence, it has miserably failed in the past to take down abusive posts, instead focusing on accounts that swear at celebrities. The platform has been criticized in the past for treating words used in a tweet as a sign of abuse, without engaging with underlying bigotry and bias — for example, a woman of color telling Piers Morgan to fuck off would probably encounter the same level of censure as a white supremacist asking all Muslims to be killed.
The newest Twitter move does one thing right — it shifts the responsibility of checking one’s language on the person being offensive, rather than relying on the person being offended to mute or block tweets they find offensive. But it still relies too much on the literal meaning of words to identify the offensive and hurtful language, without engaging with any of the contexts in which they’re used. For example, under the new policy, a person slut-shaming a woman using words like “whore” or “slut” might get the warning prompt, but can easily find a language loophole to still accomplish their mission while flying under Twitter’s abusive language radar.
Furthermore, Twitter’s new policy relies on the assumption that people who are responding to tweets with abusive language are doing it in the heat of the moment. That may be true for a small section of social media users, but there’s another section, possibly a much larger and vocal one, that weaponizes hate speech against minority groups, out of pre-meditated malice, that won’t be deterred by Twitter asking users to think about their language. Moreover, the test policy will only evaluate English-speaking tweets, which falls flat in a multi-lingual country like India where Twitter has been known to flounder when tackling local language abuse.
Whether this new policy becomes a one-of-a-kind safety feature or fails like many of Twitter’s past half-baked experiments, remains to be seen.