Twitter has vowed to act more quickly and effectively against online abuse having banned one of its most notorious users following a campaign of vitriolic racist and sexist abuse against the Ghostbusters actor Leslie Jones.
Milo Yiannopoulos, a British columnist with the rightwing website Breitbart, was permanently barred from Twitter after Jones quit the network on Tuesday in response to a wave of abusive tweets, which she said left her in a “personal hell”.
Yiannopoulos, a known provocateur who has described himself as “the most fabulous supervillain on the internet”, was accused of exacerbating abuse of the actor after he posted a harshly critical review of the film. He later tweeted: “If at first you don’t succeed (because your work is terrible), play the victim ... EVERYONE GETS HATE MAIL FFS.”
Having been suspended several times by the network for flouting its rules, he was permanently barred for what Twitter called “repeated violations” of its rules prohibiting participating in, or inciting, targeted abuse. Yiannopoulos called the decision “cowardly” and said the site was becoming “a no-go zone for conservatives”.
Before leaving Twitter, Jones implored the company to take action against the racist and sexist abuse she was receiving. “Twitter, I understand you got free speech. I get it. But there has to be some guidelines.”
Announcing she would be closing her account, Jones wrote: “I feel like I’m in a personal hell. I didn’t do anything to deserve this. It’s just too much. It shouldn’t be like this. So hurt right now.”
The Ghostbusters remake provoked outrage among some fans of the original film because of the female-led cast.
In a statement, Twitter admitted it had not done enough to curb targeted abuse and promised to do more “to better allow us to identify and take faster action on abuse as it’s happening and prevent repeat offenders”. It said it was broadening its policy on hateful abuse and increasing the ways victims could report tweets, saying it would publish more details “in the coming weeks”.
“People should be able to express diverse opinions and beliefs on Twitter,” the company said, “but no one deserves to be subjected to targeted abuse online, and our rules prohibit inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others.”
But campaigners working with victims of harassment said Twitter and other social networks had to do much more, saying in many cases the site did not seem to take complaints seriously or simply failed to respond.
Jennifer Parry, CEO of the Digital Trust, which acts on behalf of cyber abuse victims, said Twitter was “really the network of the trolls”. “You can block people but many trolls will have tens or hundreds of accounts.”
While acknowledging the sheer volume of abusive tweets was “a really serious tech problem for Twitter”, Parry said on the occasions when she had complained to the site on behalf of victims “you don’t get any response”.
“They use their algorhythms for their targeted marketing, I would like to see them use some of this technology to identify and deal with abusers.”
Fiyaz Mughal, the director of TellMama, which supports victims of anti-Muslim crimes and hate speech, was also sceptical. Mughal said: “Twitter is very adept at playing smoke and mirrors. We have been lobbying them for five years over this, and I have heard this probably four or five times.”
He called on the company to introduce a simple button to report racist, homophobic or sexist abuse, and to act with other social networks in funding a programme to counter online hate speech. “What I would say is we warmly welcome this rhetoric and ask them to do more,” he said.
One high-profile victim of trolling, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they had received many thousands of highly abusive messages on the network over a period of years. “I don’t have time to report every single one of these tweets, and when I have reported them there’s still stuff online months later. I am trying to deal with this by working with [Twitter], but it doesn’t seem to be working very well.”
In its statement, Twitter pointed to its new facility allowing users to report multiple tweets and to functions allowing users to mute or block others.
“I think it’s really welcome that Twitter have recognised they haven’t been good enough in the past at dealing with abuse and upholding their community standards, and are showing more willingness to act,” said Jo Swinson, a former Lib Dem minister and the co-founder with Yvette Cooper MP and others of the Reclaim the Internet campaign.
Swinson said: “I hope that this is not only in high-profile cases. It’s absolutely appalling what has happened to Leslie Jones, but she is not the only woman, or black woman, to receive organised campaigns of racist, misogynistic and homophobic abuse.”
The chair of the all-party parliamentary group on digital crime and Plaid Cymru MP, Liz Saville Roberts, said there were “no easy legislative answers” to the problem, and that a public debate on acceptable online conduct was needed.
“I think today’s announcement by Twitter and the high-profile nature of [the person they have banned] does indicate to me that in this instance at least, Twitter wants to be seen to be taking this problem seriously.”
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