Racists force Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones to leave Twitter

In what has become a sorry refrain, swarms of bigoted Twitter users have forced yet another public figure to abandon the social media service. This time the victim is Leslie Jones, an African-American woman who is one of the stars of the Ghostbusters remake.

Jones announced on Monday that she was quitting Twitter after receiving incessant racist harassment from Twitter users in response to her appearance in the new movie, and then getting no help from the social media company itself.

Jones is only the latest “big name” to leave Twitter in the face of the company refusing to enforce is clear-cut policies against racist, sexist, anti-semitic and homophobic harassment.

Here is what they happened to Jones, then a look at how Jews and gays are treated on Twitter, and what happened when I filed several complaints with Twitter about neo-Nazis and homophobes using its service (spoiler alert: it didn’t go well).

UPDATE: Jones is back on Twitter, after Twitter, to its credit, took decisive action to address the harassment she was facing.

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Jones gives us a flavor of some of the non-stop harassment she’s faced:

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Another user faked an image of a homophobic tweet, claiming falsely that it came from Jones’ Twitter account, and then widely circulated the link on Twitter:

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It was only after Jones announced to her quarter of a million Twitter followers that she was leaving the service that Twitter finally acted, banning a prominent right-wing troll, Milo Yiannopoulos, who has reportedly been sending his followers to harass people on Twitter for years. And while that’s great, the troll had been doing this forever, with impunity. And just as bad, this is hardly Twitter’s first run-in with bigotry. The service has also shown little interest in policing sexists, homophobes and anti-semites in its midst — all in clear violation of Twitter’s own terms of service (aka rules).

What are Twitter’s rules on hate and intolerance?

The relevant part of Twitter’s terms of service is below. Keep this in mind as you read below about how Twitter also doesn’t enforce its terms about anti-semites and homophobes:

Any accounts and related accounts engaging in the activities specified below may be temporarily locked and/or subject to permanent suspension.

Violent threats (direct or indirect): You may not make threats of violence or promote violence, including threatening or promoting terrorism.
Harassment: You may not incite or engage in the targeted abuse or harassment of others. Some of the factors that we may consider when evaluating abusive behavior include:
– if a primary purpose of the reported account is to harass or send abusive messages to others;
– if the reported behavior is one-sided or includes threats;
– if the reported account is inciting others to harass another account; and
– if the reported account is sending harassing messages to an account from multiple accounts.
Hateful conduct: You may not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease. We also do not allow accounts whose primary purpose is inciting harm towards others on the basis of these categories.

It’s clear that Jones’ harassers were violating Twitters rules. Then why wouldn’t Twitter act until Jones publicly embarrassed the company? And why hasn’t Twitter been more responsive to complaints about organized groups of sexists, anti-semites and homophobes using the service to regularly harass women, Jews and gays?

It’s important to understand how Twitter trolls work. It’s not one person sending you a mean message that you can simply block or ignore. It’s a swarm of people, often dozens or more, incessantly sending you hateful content so that every time you use Twitter you’re harassed. Not 0nly does this make it impossible to use Twitter, it also makes it incredibly painful. Jones had to deal with a real concern that these users were sabotaging her career by creating fake homophobic content in her name.

The Twitter trolls sometimes organize via Twitter, but also organize their harassment in other online communities like Reddit or 4chan. They share information on who to attack, and how best to harass them, often including personal details, such as my friend who has been repeatedly sent photos of her deceased husband in a Nazi oven.

To coin a phrase, these are online superpredators who exist simply to harass, and have a special taste for women and minorities. It’s a walking civil rights violation, organized en masse. It’s creepy as hell, far creepier than one sole bigot. And companies like Twitter, Reddit and 4chan do little to disrupt the hate they’re enabling.

Leslie Jones and her costars in the remake of Ghostbusters.

Leslie Jones and her costars in the remake of Ghostbusters.

Twitter also doesn’t enforce its Terms of Service against neo-Nazis who swarm Jewish Twitter users

Sadly, the attack on Jones is nothing new for Twitter. The service is routinely used by anti-Semites and neo-Nazis to harass Jews and gays, again with far too little done by Twitter itself to address the obvious and growing problem.

Just last month in June, the Deputy Washington Editor of the New York Times, Jonathan Weisman, announced that he was abandoning Twitter as a social media platform. Weisman was swarmed by neo-Nazi trolls, and when he reported them to Twitter the company, bizarrely, claimed that sending him messages threatening to kill “k*kes” — Weisman is Jewish — is not a violation of Twitter’s terms of service.

In fact, it is. But Weisman says that when he reported the clear violations to Twitter staff, they responded and told him the tweets weren’t a problem.

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Here’s an example of the Tweets Weisman received:

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Weisman isn’t the only high-profile Jewish public figure to be swarmed by neo-Nazis, only to find Twitter refusing to enforce its own terms of service against such hate. NYT contributor Julia Ioffe saw perhaps the most vicious attacks when she wrote a profile of Melania Trump, Donald’s Wife, for GQ. Trump supporters on Twitter swarmed Ioffe, sending her: pictures of herself as a concentration camp victim, and repeated jokes about Auschwitz and killing Jews.

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Ioffe also received phone calls with recordings of Hitler on the other line, and someone even tried to send a dead-body clean-up service to her home. While the latter two may or may not have been perpetrated by Twitter followers, the rest of the campaign was clearly Twitter-based.

Twitter also doesn’t protect gays against homophobic swarms

I’ve had my own run-ins with Twitter trolls, often because they incorrectly think I’m Jewish, but also because I’m a prominent LGBT advocate.

First, I reported some of the anti-semitic tweets to Twitter, and Twitter informed me that they and the accounts they came from were not hateful or harassing under Twitter’s terms of service. I’d like you to see one such account that Twitter deemed perfectly “not hateful” or “harassing.”

Meet Grandpa Lampshade, who has a show at Radio Aryan. Now, for those of you don’t get the historical reference, the Nazis, some allege. made lampshades out of the skins of Jewish Holocaust victims. That’s what this account’s screen name is about. Have a look at some sample tweets from the account, below, that Twitter told me was perfectly fine and not hateful at all.

grandpa-lampshade

 

grandpa-lampshade-2

 

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This account is not a problem under Twitter’s terms of service. Here’s what Twitter had to say about it:

twitter-lampshade

 

I decided to try another experiment, and see if Weisman, Ioffe and Jones were right. Last week, several Twitter trolls I don’t even know got together and decided to start sending me unsolicited tweets calling me a “faggot.” I wanted to see whether Twitter would tell me that spitting “faggot” at a gay person, unprovoked and en masse, doesn’t violate the company’s terms of service which specifically outlaw harassment and hateful conduct based on sexual orientation, among other categories.

So I reported four of the tweets to Twitter, and a few days later was told that they didn’t violate Twitter’s TOS. Here are the tweets. Keep in mind, I never contacted these people and have no idea who they are. This was entirely unsolicited:

patrick-macdonald-fg

 

harry-flashman-fg

 

dissident-right-fg

 

race-war-mercenary-fg

And here’s the answer I received from Twitter on each of the above:

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So it’s official Twitter policy that calling a gay person “faggot” is not hateful or harassing. That’s a problem.

When will Twitter truly address this problem?

In response to the attack on Jones, Twitter has issued some strong statements about its zero tolerance for abusive behavior on its network. The problem is that Twitter in fact tolerates violations of its policies left and right: When you report violations to them, they simply refuse to help. And it’s not entirely clear from the company’s public statements that it fully understands the problem:

“We rely on people to report this type of behavior to us but we are continuing to invest heavily in improving our tools and enforcement systems to prevent this kind of abuse. We realize we still have a lot of work in front of us before Twitter is where it should be on how we handle these issues.”

The problem isn’t simply needing improved tools and enforcement systems. The problem is that when a real human being at Twitter reviews an obvious violation of the company’s TOS, that Twitter employee refuses to take action, as we saw in all of the cases above. No change in tools and systems will matter if Twitter’s own employees do not believe that racism, anti-semitism and homophobia are “hateful harassment.”

Look, I like Twitter. I love Twitter in fact. As a journalist and a civil rights advocate I find Twitter incredibly useful for my work, but also personally entertaining. I enjoy being in touch with so many interesting people from around the world. And it pains me that Twitter has been having financial problems of late. It would be a huge loss if Twitter weren’t to survive. But I fear Twitter won’t survive if it doesn’t figure out how — and doesn’t find the will — to deal with the racists, sexists, anti-semites and homophobes who have taken over the service and now call it home.

Jack Dorsey, help. Please.


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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  • They seem more like generic form letters that they respond with any time someone files a report. They probably don’t get any real personal attention unless they’re flagged multiple times, by multiple complainants, in a relatively short period of time.

  • I think you’re right, they may not be reviewed by humans at all.

  • But that doesn’t really answer the question because each and every time, including the reports I made, the reports were answered by a real person who said they don’t violate the TOS. So it’s not a problem of simply not having enough staff. The staff saw the complaint and didn’t think it passes muster.

  • Josephine Welsh

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  • crazymonkeylady

    This is why Trump won the nomination. Racists and their ilk now feel freer than ever to voice their hatreds out loud. They vote. And nothing can stop them now.

  • Russ

    I say the answer is no more anonymous web. I can’t stomach reading comments on the hometown newspaper reader comments section. If everyone has to use their *real* name and a real photo then I think this would cure so much BS that people post because they think they’re getting away with something while hiding behind the screen of anonymity. I hope so anyway…

  • I agree wholeheartedly. This situation is largely a failure of imagination and innovation on Twitter’s part. Never even having the foresight to realize that people could use their tools as a weapon. But they’re not alone, many social platforms have seen the same kinds of rampant abuse, and have failed to address it. It took World of Warcraft over a decade to add an automated silencing feature for chronic abusers, and they still rely on a human being investigating every single reported issue before something real gets done about it. YouTube comments are a cesspool, and they’ve done nothing – you’d think a company like Google would be a lot more inventive at coming up with a way to make their services more welcoming and safe for everyone.

  • quax

    Since I am a bit of an expert on data mining I must confess that I don’t understand why they don’t push their tweets through an analytical stream, especially since they’ve been experimenting with Spark since 2014.

    They wouldn’t have to push all the traffic through there, just the accounts that have been flagged. Even a simple fuzzy keyword match would help to quickly validate most of the offenders (e.g. filtering for “faggot” in various spelling variations). You could then branch out to social graph mining to automatically identify mobs. This is not rocket science and well established technology for social media sentiment analytics and fraud detection.

    Of course these guys will just create alternate accounts, so you will have to use IP tracing, in turn this can be defeated by anonymizer services (but there are other clever ways to identify specific machines). Point is, this technology could make it much harder for these assholes. And the drive-by shooters wouldn’t find it much fun any more.

  • quax

    The bottom of the barrel. Feeling strong, as a mob of anonymous cowards at a safe distance.

  • Twitter employs less than 4000 people. There’s something like 500 million tweets a day, from something like 300 million users. They simply do not have the human resources to police it in any reasonable way. Their terms of service and rules simply aren’t worth the bits they’re written in.

  • It’s gotten to the point, John, where I’m not even sure they have actual humans looking at what has to be tens or hundreds of thousands of TOS violations complaints every single day. Yeah, maybe a few high-profile individuals are weeded out — like that Milo jerk who was among the ringleaders of the trollswarm which came after Leslie Jones. I honestly think easily 99% of the complaints (or more) are processed automatically with a rejection response. And if Twitter’s overworked / underpaid admins are anything like they are in many other high-volume industries, they’re incentivized NOT to take any action and to reject as many complaints as possible in any given day.

    Basically, it seems like if you are famous enough and make enough of a stink, Twitter’s admins will make an example of a couple of the higher-profile harassers, but they won’t do anything about the trollswarms of TOS violators.

  • Hue-Man

    TWTR on the New York Stock Exchange, market capitalization $12.88 billion.

    Board of Directors (includes Debra L. Lee, Chairman & CEO of BET Networks)

    https://investor.twitterinc.com/directors.cfm

    It’s not good enough to say that the speed limit is 30 MPH if you never enforce it! Time to start questioning the outside directors about their support of hate and harassment of whatever kind.

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