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The Twitter Paradox: How A Platform Designed For Free Speech Enables Internet Trolls


Our next guest, Charlie Warzel, has written a series of articles about harassment on Twitter and how the company is trying to deal with it. Warzel is a technology reporter for BuzzFeed.

Charlie Warzel, welcome to FRESH AIR. As you point out in your articles, one of Twitter's greatest strengths is also one of its vulnerabilities, free speech. The founders of Twitter were strong free speech advocates. It's the free speech approach to Twitter that has enabled Twitter to be such an important platform for pro-democracy movements, for the Arab Spring. Can you talk about that paradox that the free speech that Twitter embodies is also Twitter's vulnerability?

CHARLIE WARZEL: I think that this is one of the fundamental issues of the internet, this issue of free speech right now. And what we're sort of seeing is the idealistic understanding of what the internet could be, this utopian idea that so many entrepreneurs and people who have created these enormous social platforms, that they believe at their core that the internet can sort of raise all voices and really be an amazing tool.

And to have that anonymity tends to be something that these platforms favor. In Twitter's case, its core to their idea of free speech, and free speech is one of the founding principles that Twitter is built upon and this understanding that to truly connect the world, to truly be the pulse of the world, you have to give people the option to be able to be free of persecution. And that's why you saw so much of what happened in the early days of Twitter with the Iranian revolution and the Arab Spring, where Twitter played such an important role for political dissidents. It really sort of protected and allowed them to have a voice and elevated the platform.

GROSS: Would you compare Twitter's policy with Facebook and Instagram in terms of what you can say and how - and how you have to identify yourself?

WARZEL: Instagram and Facebook have adopted a real identity-centric approach. You have to give a version of yourself. You can't choose a pseudonym. You have to project some version of the person who you really are. And that is a very powerful thing, and it's a reason why Facebook is sort of one of the primary ways we authenticate ourselves across the internet.

And as a result, Facebook has its own problems with abuse and harassment but not nearly to the same degree because there's no way for people to sort of hide behind an anonymous account name or an anonymous avatar. On Facebook, you have to project that image of who you are. And Facebook has really doubled down on that. They have a lot of strict community standards as well as Instagram. One of those is no nudity, and it is something that has - that strong stand has inured the platform a little bit more to the kind of abuse that we're seeing grow so rapidly on Twitter.

GROSS: Yeah, you mentioned that Twitter is one of the few social media platforms used in the adult entertainment industry because it allows nudity.

WARZEL: Absolutely. And for that, it's been an incredibly useful platform for adult entertainers. And it is an example of giving a voice and being a home for people that don't necessarily have a voice. And I think that you see that actually working - not to make too much of a jump, but it's really one of the same principles that's at play with a lot of activist movements in the country.

It is a place where you can broadcast your raw opinion. You can get the news out that, you know, maybe some platforms are wary to broadcast. And that's been an incredibly successful tool for all kinds of movements like Black Lives Matter and the Arab Spring.

GROSS: So one of the kinds of videos that's a real issue on social media is beheading videos. Sometimes a beheading video, as gruesome as it is, is news because it proves that a hostage has been murdered. Sometimes it's purely harassment. People have been getting beheading videos just as a way of upsetting them, of harassing them, of threatening them. Can you compare, for instance, how Facebook and Twitter deal with beheading videos?

WARZEL: I think this is something that my reporting showed Twitter struggled internally with a lot, especially in in 2014, when this rash of ISIS beheading videos really started to flood the internet. There were internal meetings that we reported that showed that Twitter's executives were truly concerned that the platform would be overrun by this kind of content that may be newsworthy but is also broadcasting a very distinct message and is also incredibly disturbing.

But Twitter has become the place where news happens, where you get that raw eyewitness account and access. And Twitter had to figure out a way to harness the best of that. And I think that is something that they're still struggling with. They've created a newsworthy clause which allows them to allow certain images based off of their relevancy to public information and to the news. But there was a worry inside the company that if Twitter were to be overrun with these grisly, just very disturbing videos that there really wouldn't be anyone who would want to sign on.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Charlie Warzel. He covers tech for BuzzFeed, and he's written a series of articles about Twitter and trolling. We're going to take a short break, then we'll be back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Charlie Warzel. He's a tech reporter for BuzzFeed. He's been writing a series of articles about Twitter and trolling and what Twitter is and isn't doing to try to stop trolling.

You write that there's really a discussion, a debate within Twitter about what is Twitter. Is it more of a communication utility where it just - you know, it opens up the lines and you do what you will with it, kind of like the phone company, or is it a mediator of content, where content has to have some oversight? Would you describe more about that debate?

WARZEL: Anyone who's been following Twitter for the past decade has watched this evolution. Twitter started out as a very sort of quick, short-burst messaging platform, just the 140 characters, no images, no video, really sort of like a status update, what you're doing that day or at that moment and in a sense evolved just incredibly to be this sort of media-rich platform that has content partnerships with the NFL and media outlets like Bloomberg. As a result, Twitter really sort of is this media company. It is a place where news happens. It is a vibrant source of news for so many people.

And yet Twitter is also a utility in many ways. Twitter is this communication method, this digital way of reaching somebody, of having a conversation? It provides that infrastructure. And the real problem here is - seems to be that Twitter doesn't really want to put itself in any kind of box like that. They're very reluctant to, and they keep redefining, you know, who they are.

And the problem with that redefinition is that a utility is not subject to nearly the same kind of moderation as a media company. I can send you or anyone almost anything over a text message and AT&T or Verizon aren't going to moderate that and have no requirement to moderate that, whereas if I use a blogging platform to, you know, smear somebody or say something awful about somebody, there is sort of a standard on the internet that has been created that that should be regulated.

GROSS: What kind of effort is Twitter making to come up with a solution, a product that will both protect people on Twitter and protect free speech?

WARZEL: This is the fundamental problem, the free speech element really, really hampers Twitter. It's very important to them that no voices be silenced. And yet the task of moderating is to silence certain voices to some extent. Twitter introduced a quality filter not too long ago that they have rolled out to everyone. It used to be only for special verified users, so lots of celebrities and journalists. But this filter has proven - it's driven by an algorithm, and it's proven to be generally poor. It's also an opt-in filter, meaning everyday users are everyday users are going to have to go through their settings and change that. And that's something that I think plenty of everyday Twitter users who aren't sort of in the weeds don't necessarily even know they have that option.

GROSS: What does it filter?

WARZEL: The quality filter will ostensibly favor tweets that are created by verified users. I think that there is some effort to filter out certain search terms perhaps that are particularly violent or racially insensitive or tagged to hate speech in some way. But again, this is all very proprietary information that Twitter doesn't really let anyone in on, especially journalists. And this is one of the difficulties in covering Twitter from this angle of harassment is that there's so little knowledge as to what Twitter is really trying to do and so little effort on their part to disclose any of it, an unwillingness to disclose any of it that makes it difficult to see how, if at all, they are earnestly trying to fix this problem.

GROSS: BuzzFeed conducted a survey of Twitter users. There were 2,700 users who responded to the survey. I would say right at the jump here this is a very unscientific (laughter) survey.


GROSS: This is representative of people who knew about the survey and decided to participate in it. That said, what were some of your takeaways from these responders?

WARZEL: I'll also just stress that this is an unscientific survey. But nonetheless we wanted to hear from users themselves and understand exactly what happens when they do go out there and experience harassment and report it. And what we found was that roughly 46 percent of respondents told us that the last time they reported an abusive tweet to the company, the company took no action on the request that they were aware of.

Another 29 percent said when they reported abusive tweets, they never heard anything back at all. It was effectively radio silence. And 18 percent said that when they did report an abusive tweet, they were told that the tweet did not violate Twitter's rules of being either a violent threat or hateful conduct. Only 56 instances out of roughly 2,700 people surveyed showed that Twitter deleted an offending account or a tweet that violated these rules. And so I think what - what the survey really showed was that regardless of what Twitter is doing behind the scenes, Twitter is doing a poor job of communicating exactly what's going on once you hit that report button.

GROSS: The New York Times this week ran a double-page spread of all the people, places and things Trump has insulted on Twitter since declaring his presidency. And there were one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight columns of really small print covering two pages of these tweets. Have you been following his tweets? And I'm just wondering how you think Donald Trump's use of Twitter is affecting perceptions of Twitter.

WARZEL: I think this is one of the most fascinating things about Twitter is just how integral it has been in this election. Donald Trump has been able to really leverage Twitter to get his message out to the base, really sort of skirting the media. And then also using Twitter as a way to pick up a lot of free media.

He can send out a string of incendiary tweets at 3 in the morning and by 7 a.m., they're dominating all of the morning shows. Twitter has been just central in this. And yet so much of that message lately has been so negative.

And if you look at the way that Donald Trump tweets and sort of what that New York Times spread can kind of show is that Donald Trump is himself a very effective troll with regard to Twitter. He says incendiary things that may or may not be based at all in fact. He sort of is looking for the reaction more than he's looking for any sort of substance. The fact that you have engaged with it, that you are outraged by it is just as important as whether or not you believe in it.

And I think that, you know, that behavior is again sort of being normalized in that sense to have somebody who exhibits a lot of this trollish behavior be elevated to the most covered human being in America or maybe the world for this past 18 months, I think that that has a profound effect on how other people, you know, choose to use the internet.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Charlie Warzel. He covers tech for BuzzFeed. And he's written a series of articles about Twitter and trolling. We're going to take a short break, then we'll be back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Charlie Warzel. He's a tech reporter for BuzzFeed. He's been writing a series of articles about Twitter and trolling and what Twitter is and isn't doing to try to stop trolling.

What kind of response have you gotten from Twitter to your requests to interview the CEO or get more information about what they're trying to do to deal with people who harass other people?

WARZEL: A major fundamental issue of my reporting on Twitter has been the lack of transparency. Twitter has not allowed us to speak with Jack Dorsey on this issue. And Twitter has not made any executives available to talk about this issue yet. If you speak with Twitter about this issue, they will say that theyre working on it and that this is something that they take very seriously now and have always taken very seriously and that they are actively working towards putting out some tools that will that will stop this. What those tools are is yet to be determined, and they have hinted publicly that we might see some of those things soon.

But there's not a lot for Twitter right now to gain perhaps by acknowledging this problem without putting forth a solution. That seems to be sort of the company line. I would argue, however, that so many of the people that I've spoken with love Twitter but are so frustrated and sort of feel that the company isn't angry enough about this, about this failing that, you know, the people at Twitter surely want to see this problem go away as much as anyone else.

And what people would like to see from Twitter - the people I have interviewed, the people experiencing this abuse on a daily basis - is a little bit more outrage. In 2014, Twitter's former CEO Dick Costolo released a memo that said we suck at dealing with abuse. And that memo was greeted by people who experience harassment with a lot of kudos. People were sort of thrilled to know that the company saw it, was frustrated and was going to deal with it. Since then not much has been done, and there's this sort of growing frustration as Twitter stays silent that maybe it doesn't understand just how bad this problem is.

GROSS: So why did Disney and the company sales force decide against buying Twitter?

WARZEL: The reports showed that, among a number of reasons, investors in both of the companies were troubled by a lot of the issues of harassment that are currently plaguing Twitter and all the bad press that that sort of entails. You have a lot of very high-profile celebrities who have quit the platform, like the "Saturday Night Live" actor Leslie Jones.

And when those sort of things happen, they create sort of this PR disaster for Twitter. So the harassment issue has sort of for the first time truly started to impact Twitter's bottom line. In past years, harassment has been something that Twitter can sort of point to as a small cordoned-off problem. It's something that's happening, the company regrets that it's happening, it is trying to fix the problem, but the rest of Twitter is out here spreading great information, you know, being the place where celebrities can interact with each other and with normal people. And it is billed as this wonderful community.

This sort of shows, though, that the harassment issue and the fact that abuse is increasing on the platform at a pretty alarming rate, it's finally affecting Twitter's bottom line. It's finally affecting how the company is performing, how the company is viewed in Silicon Valley and in the eyes of plenty of its competitors. And I think that that could be a moment for Twitter. It could be a real reckoning where Twitter finally says we have to get this problem under control or risk the future.

GROSS: Charlie Warzel, thank you so much for talking with us.

WARZEL: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Charlie Warzel is a technology reporter for BuzzFeed.


GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be chef Anthony Bourdain. His book "Kitchen Confidential" was a best-selling behind-the-scenes tell all about the restaurant business. In his Peabody Award-winning CNN series "Parts Unknown," he travels the globe sampling foods from diverse cultures. But his new cookbook, "Appetites," focuses on the food he makes for his family at home. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.