Is It Too Late For Transparency? Twitter Hopes Not

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images.

Update: November 3, 2017: Twitter has published a new version of the Twitter Rules. The updated Rules offer more detail about what kinds of posts count as violations. In the blog post announcing the changes, Twitter calls out four areas with the largest additions and shifts in language: abusive behavior, self-harm, spam, and graphic violence and adult content. These changes come in light of the opposition the company faced last month, when it locked Rose McGowan out of her account.

With regards to abusive behavior, Twitter says it is "making it clear that context — including if the behavior is targeted, if a report has been filed and by whom, and if the Tweet itself is newsworthy and in the legitimate public interest — is crucial when evaluating abusive behavior and determining appropriate enforcement actions."

The new Rules are a work in progress and Twitter has promised further elaboration on individual topics in coming weeks.

Read the updated Rules in full here.

Update: October 20, 2017: As promised, Twitter has provided the public with a calendar breaking down how it will implement changes to its existing rules. In a blog post accompanying the calendar, the Twitter Safety team acknowledges its prior shortcomings:

"Far too often in the past we’ve said we’d do better and promised transparency but have fallen short in our efforts. Starting today, you can expect regular, real-time updates about our progress."

The updates will start rolling out on October 27. They will focus on expanding the site's definition of non-consensual nudity and introducing a way to appeal accounts that are suspended because of abuse.

This piece was originally published on October 19, 2017.

Twitter has found itself in a bind. After 11.5 years, hundreds of millions of users, and the creation of that little thing called a hashtag (formerly, the pound sign), the platform can no longer justify its actions — or lack thereof — as attempts to empower freedom of speech.

While conversations about online harassment and abuse on Twitter amped up over the course of 2016 (see Leslie Jones's racist Twitter troll and the presidential election), they've reached a boiling point in 2017. Events in recent months, including the Charlottesville protests and Harvey Weinstein allegations have called attention to the voices Twitter allows to speak out, and those it chooses to silence. For many users, last week's Rose McGowan incident was the last straw, igniting a 24-hour boycott.

In response to the boycott, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has spent the past week assuring users that Twitter is prioritizing its efforts to update its policies and protect its users. The resounding message, which was reiterated yesterday when Dorsey announced Twitter will reveal how its safety teams are enforcing new rules, is going to be one of transparency.

In an email acquired by Wired that was sent from Twitter's head of safety policy to members of the company's Trust and Safety Council, the new rules are outlined: Twitter will take tougher stances on Tweets glorifying violence, unwanted sexual advances, non-consensual nudity, violent groups, and hate symbols. The Twitter Rules will also be updated with new details intended to clarify what counts as adult content, hate symbols, and graphic violence. In a nod to the lack of clarity offered with McGowan's lock-out, Twitter notes it will revise its language when alerting people they have violated its policies.

All of these changes are welcome and necessary, but as with anything else, it's hard to judge until users start seeing them in action. Right now, it's all talk. Plus, the email notes that the scope of what will be included in new policies around violent groups and hate symbols is still being decided.

It's often said that consumers in 2017 want and demand brand transparency, so Twitter's decision to appeal to these desires as it updates is policies is a smart business move. But at a time when many people are questioning the larger intentions of tech companies, is transparency enough? And, even if it is, how transparent will Twitter actually be in coming months? A few 140-character Tweet threads from Dorsey are unlikely to abate skepticism — at least, not for now.

If Twitter really wants to win back trust, it will need to not only implement the promised changes, it will need to enforce them accurately and consistently. That's a huge task, but one it has to figure out if it wants to continue to be the world's opinion platform.

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