clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Twitter CEO: 'We suck at dealing with abuse'

New, 91 comments

Dick Costolo says trolls are costing Twitter users

Michael Kovac/Getty Images

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo is taking personal responsibility for his platform's chronic problems with harassment and abuse, telling employees that he is embarrassed for the company's failures and would soon be taking stronger action to eliminate trolls. He said problems with trolls are driving away the company's users. "We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we've sucked at it for years," Costolo wrote in an internal memo obtained by The Verge. "It's no secret and the rest of the world talks about it every day. We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day."

"It's nobody's fault but mine."

Costolo's comments came in response to a question on an internal forum about a recent story by Lindy West, a frequent target of harassment on Twitter. Among other things, West's tormentors created a Twitter account for her then recently deceased father and made cruel comments about her on the service; West recently shared her story on This American Life and The Guardian. On Twitter's forums, an employee asked whether anything could be done:

On Mon, Feb 2, 2015 at 4:37 PM, Adrian Cole wrote:

A must read in its own right about cyberbullying. One section suggests
Twitter can just do more.

"I’m aware that Twitter is well within its rights to let its platform be used as a vehicle for sexist and racist harassment. But, as a private company – just like a comedian mulling over a rape joke, or a troll looking for a target for his anger – it could choose not to. As a collective of human beings, it could choose to be better."

In response, Costolo made a frank acknowledgement of Twitter's slowness to adopt tools to combat trolls.

On Mon, Feb 2, 2015 at 8:35 PM, Dick Costolo wrote:

We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we've sucked at it for years. It's no secret and the rest of the world talks about it every day. We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day.

I'm frankly ashamed of how poorly we've dealt with this issue during my tenure as CEO. It's absurd. There's no excuse for it. I take full responsibility for not being more aggressive on this front. It's nobody else's fault but mine, and it's embarrassing.

We're going to start kicking these people off right and left and making sure that when they issue their ridiculous attacks, nobody hears them.

Everybody on the leadership team knows this is vital.

@dickc

Costolo later sent a follow-up message reiterating that he was taking responsibility for Twitter's slowness in addressing the problem.

On Tue, Feb 3, 2015 at 12:45 PM, Dick Costolo wrote:

Let me be very very clear about my response here. I take PERSONAL responsibility for our failure to deal with this as a company. I thought i did that in my note, so let me reiterate what I said, which is that I take personal responsibility for this. I specifically said "It's nobody's fault but mine"

We HAVE to be able to tell each other the truth, and the truth that everybody in the world knows is that we have not effectively dealt with this problem even remotely to the degree we should have by now, and that's on me and nobody else. So now we're going to fix it, and I'm going to take full responsibility for making sure that the people working night and day on this have the resources they need to address the issue, that there are clear lines of responsibility and accountability, and that we don't equivocate in our decisions and choices.

Dick

Amid widespread criticism, Twitter released some tools to improve its notoriously arduous process for reporting abuse in December. In November, Twitter partnered with an advocacy group called WAM! to investigate harassment against women. But every day, Twitter users still face threats of physical violence, sexual abuse, and stalking — all forms of harassment that disproportionately affect women online, according to data from The Pew Center.

Twitter users face death threats every day

Just last week, feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian documented the harassment she received on Twitter from January 20th to the 26th. You'll have to scroll for awhile before you hit the end of tweets containing gendered insults, victim blaming, incitement to suicide, sexual violence, and rape and death threats. Sarkessian was a top target for Gamergate predators because of her criticism of the way women are portrayed in video games, and her post shows that the vile intimidation campaign against her continues unabated.

Gamergate is only the latest and loudest example of harassment. Robin Williams' daughter, Zelda Williams, left the service last August because of the disturbing images and attacks she received after her father's suicide. Advocates have offered numerous suggestions for fixing the problem, including improving responsiveness to reports and better blocking tools.

Twitter's fourth quarter earnings call is scheduled for tomorrow afternoon. They'll have plenty of new initiatives to discuss, including their new tie-up with Google, which was revealed today. But given Costolo's acknowledgement that trolls are costing Twitter users, expect him to get some questions about his plans for dealing with abuse now as well.

Twitter declined to comment on the memo.

If you have more information about the memo or Twitter's upcoming initiatives, please email nitasha@theverge.com.