Twitter updates rules on hate speech, but is light on action

While Twitter now uses harsher language, the consequences for abuse on the site are the same

Technology trends and news by Steven Loeb
December 30, 2015
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Abuse on social media, especially Twitter, has been a big problem for a long time. But there really isn't all that much that they can do about it, if we're being honest. They can get tougher, sure, but that won't really stop anything from happening, will it?

Twitter announced on Tuesday that it has updated its Rules in order to crack down on "abusive behaviour and hateful conduct."

"The updated language emphasizes that Twitter will not tolerate behavior intended to harass, intimidate, or use fear to silence another user’s voice. As always, we embrace and encourage diverse opinions and beliefs –but we will continue to take action on accounts that cross the line into abuse," the company wrote.

So what exactly is new? The Next Web compared the new language in the Twitter Rules to a cached version of the old rules. This is what changed.

First, there is now a section entitled "Abusive Behavior," whereas the old version lumped the subject in along with spam.

The Abusive Behavior section also has a beefed up language about just how strongly Twitter feels about abuse on the site. Spoiler alert: it doesn't like it at all!

"We believe in freedom of expression and in speaking truth to power, but that means little as an underlying philosophy if voices are silenced because people are afraid to speak up. In order to ensure that people feel safe expressing diverse opinions and beliefs, we do not tolerate behavior that crosses the line into abuse, including behavior that harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence another user’s voice," it says.

Twitter also added a new section on hateful conduct on the site.

"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 now says.

This is all a lot of talk, but what about action? What is Twitter going to do to those who break the rules? Will it kick them in the groin? Will it tell their mothers on them? Will it go on their permanent record? 

Uh, no. The rest of the language, meaning the actual consequences for breaking the rules, is pretty much the same: people who break them may be permanently suspended.

Twitter, to its credit, has been trying to curb abuse, and not only through stricter language. It has increased the size of its team, and given users new tools to help combat abuse. It also set up the Twitter Safety Centre to help give users a better education on what is, and is not, abuse.

Abuse on social media has been making some headlines lately. Earlier this month Facebook, Google and Twitter were forced, by the German government, to take a stronger stand on hate speech, making it easier for users and anti-racism groups to report hate speech by creating specialist teams to deal with these incidents at the three companies.

The reason for that order was a recent rise in hate speech as a result of the Syrian refugee crisis, over a million of whom are set to be coming to Germany in the coming year.  It was also the result of an investigation into Facebook by the Germany government last month over whether or not Facebook had failed to remove hate speech.

Of course, there are all sorts of thorny problems that come with trying to crack down on such things, namely issues of freedom on speech.

Mark Zuckerberg has, in a way, been talking out of both sides of his mouth on this issue. While at once voicing support of Muslims, telling them, "you are always welcome here and that we will fight to protect your rights and create a peaceful and safe environment for you," he has also defaulted to the "it's free speech" argument when confronted with hateful language used on Facebook.

"We're trying to connect everyone in the world and give everyone a voice," Zuckerberg said in a town hall meeting following the Charle Hebdo attacks in Paris in January. "This is about freedom of expression."

Twitter, and the other social networks, have two issues to deal with. First is that fine line between freedom of speech and abuse, and the second is whether or not they can ever really eradicate that abuse from their sites. Both are issues that they will likely be dealing with for years to come. 

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