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Has Twitter gone off-course?

Trolls, abuses, threats - has Twitter changed for the worse? The authors find out


Dhruv Munjal & Manavi Kapur 

Going off course

In February 2015, CEO Dick Costolo let the internet world into a "secret" that had been a damning reality all along: just cannot contain harassment and abuse. "We s**k at dealing with abuse and trolls on this platform and we've s**ked at it for years," the bespectacled Costolo said in a memo that was leaked to the press. He deemed his company's failure to deal with abuse an "embarrassment".

Just the following day, even as its share prices soared on the back of the announcement of a deal with Google, announced that it had added only four million new monthly active users from the previous quarter, falling short by more than half of what Wall Street had predicted.

Four months later, Costolo, troubled by tardy user growth and worryingly fluctuating share prices, was replaced by Jack Dorsey, the maverick blue-eyed boy who co-founded the company in 2006. When asked about trolling on a television show soon after taking over, Dorsey said that he had been a victim himself but had never bothered to block anyone. In his own unmistakable bumptious way, Dorsey brushed off any worries surrounding trolling and abuse.

Unlike Costolo, Dorsey opens about Twitter's abuse troubles only reluctantly. The fact that Twitter has turned into an acerbic blend of harassment and trolls, and a cozy home for bigots, doesn't always find mention in the myriad things that Dorsey talks about.

"They have been too casual about the issue. What started as a harmless social media platform has transformed into a dangerous trolling ground," says Arvind Jain, a social media specialist based in Bengaluru.

Manveer Singh Malhi, digital head and partner, iGenero, a Hyderabad-based software and web-development company, describes Twitter as a double-edged sword. "It is a great tool for communication and information but if you slip up even once, it can get really cruel."

When Twitter so stunningly stormed the public conscience a decade ago, it was an ingenious invention that changed the way we had always consumed news; it was a swift new breaking ground for ideas and information. Several big news stories, including the Haiti earthquake, the killing of Osama bin Laden, and the Boston Marathon bombing, were picked up by others after they first broke on Twitter.

News remains one of Twitter's stellar hallmarks, but the exponential rise in trolls and abuses has users worried. Earlier this week, actor Aishwarya Rai was incessantly trolled for wearing a "hideous" purple lipstick to the Cannes Film Festival red carpet; after the declaration of the Assembly elections results on Thursday, several leaders were derided in ways so abominable that some users may actually choose to stay away from the platform for a while.

Mild provocations on Twitter often snowball into grotesque verbal duels. "It has become a major venting ground. Unlike Facebook, here you have a big audience and you can say whatever you want. Its reach is unfathomable," says Malhi.

Rajdeep Sardesai, consulting editor, India Today Group, has one of the most popular Twitter accounts in India, with over 3.7 million followers. And yet, he deleted his account on April 30, but not before expressing his lament over a hacking incident where lewd messages were sent out to his followers from his account. "How low will some people now stoop? Hack my account? Put out false messages? When will this end? Time to disable account. Enough is enough," he wrote.

Though Sardesai activated his account five days later, this incident, he says, has left an indelible mark on his experience of Twitter.

"I joined Twitter about five years ago largely because it offered a chance for a two-way communication. The feedback on what I said was instant," he says. "Now, two-way communication has been replaced with motivated and partisan agenda, which is designed to cultivate hatred and settle scores."

People like Sardesai, who are always in the public eye, are often targets of the most viscous attacks. Sardesai now likens Twitter to a "snake pit".

Much like Sardesai, Congress leader Shashi Tharoor too joined the platform because of its massive reach. "When I joined Twitter in 2009, I felt it was possible to hear as well as respond to people's genuine concerns and opinions," says the MP from Thiruvananthapuram. Tharoor was also one of the first political leaders to create an account on Twitter, especially at a time when political parties felt apprehensive about being on a social media platform as open as Twitter.

Tharoor says 80 per cent of the messages he now receives on Twitter are from trolls. "This is quite unlike the early years when it was genuinely a platform where one could sustain sincere, intelligent conversations with a wide section of people. Anyone joining social media platforms must first learn to ignore them and then get down to conversations of meaning," says Tharoor.

Twitter's revamped security features, however, allow users to filter what they wish to see on their screen. "We have that allow people to block accounts from following them, unfollow accounts they don't want to see, and filter the replies they receive - to put people in control of what they see on Twitter," explains Mahima Kaul, head of public policy, Twitter India. The company says it will continue to invest in tools that make the process of reporting abuse easier.

But for users who have millions of followers, blocking accounts isn't the easiest thing to do.

Sardesai believes blocking accounts is not an answer, especially because for every account that Twitter blocks, there are as many more that mushroom every day. And, it is particularly easy to troll on Twitter without strong measures to penalise such activity. For this hacking incident, for example, he says that Twitter was extremely helpful. "But going forward, Twitter will need to find a way to monitor content without compromising on free speech."

Most Twitter users who choose to stay anonymous are normal human beings who enjoy the comfort of friends and family. Just that when they sit in front of a computer screen, they undergo a strange transformation, undone by a wallop of hysteria. "There is definitely some thrill involved in abusing someone. That's the major reason people choose to stay anonymous and say whatever they feel like," says Anoop Mishra, a digital professional who specialises in the study of Twitter.

Ishan Berry (name changed), who tweets from a parody account that has over 100,000 followers, says that humour should not take the shape of abuse or trolling. "I use a lot of satire - it doesn't hurt anyone. People must know where to draw a line."

This anonymity allows people to feel empowered enough to take someone down, especially a celebrity or someone well-known and important, as Sonakshi Sinha, actor and politician Shatrugan Sinha's daughter, would find out. Shamed for being "fat", for her comments on Ganesh Chaturthi and for supporting her co-actor Salman Khan, Sinha is one of the most trolled celebrities on Twitter.

She has been vocal about such online violence. In response to an article that a journalist tweeted against body shaming, Sinha wrote: "These losers can't bully me. Instead of giving them what they want (importance) tell people cyber bullying and body shaming is wrong [sic]."

But trolls are not always easy to combat. Activist Kavita Krishnan joined Twitter just a few years ago and has seen the quality of conversation deteriorate drastically over the last two years. Recently, in a torrid attempt at character assassination, abusive tweets questioned whether her mother had "free sex".

Krishnan's mother came out with a strong message, but that wasn't the end of the lewd remarks. "Organised trolling is a psychological game that is meant to bring you down. In the process, people who may have something fruitful to contribute get missed." Krishnan says that she doesn't expect "adulation", but this kind of abusive and threatening language is worrisome. "Twitter should be about opinion and not death threats."

Tweets are crawled by Google bots and show up in search results - this has made handling social media accounts a nightmare for . "Any company, large or small, that has to deal with customers is constantly under the threat of seeing a bad review on social media. Twitter particularly has a greater impact on a company's image since the posts are completely public," says the co-founder of a food-tech startup.

Twitter, in some ways, is crying out for change, with many inadvertently questioning the very purpose that the platform serves. A few years ago, actor Sylvester Stallone quit the micro-blogging site, saying that he found the idea of sharing his personal life with a group of strangers "futile". Other celebrities have echoed similar sentiments.

Its business, rather expectedly then, is suffering. Twitter's share price is currently valued at $14.15 on the New York Stock Exchange, slightly higher than the all-time low of $13.90. The number of active users has now stagnated at roughly 300 million worldwide, and the number of monthly tweets has dropped to 303 million - from 661 million in August 2014. Moments, a tweet customisation feature introduced last year, has also met with a tepid response.

Facebook has shown that reinvention is indeed possible. Labelled as purely "social" during its nascent years, the "trending" feature has helped the company make the service more news-oriented. Even as some still remain sceptical about its long-term future, Facebook is surging ahead. As Krishnan explains, given that you have like-minded people on Facebook, its user experience is significantly more pleasant.

"We're focused on what Twitter does best: live. Whether it's breaking news, entertainment, or sports, hearing about and watching a live event unfold is the fastest way to understand the power of Twitter. By doing so, we believe we can build the planet's best daily connected audience," says a Twitter spokesperson.

Placing special emphasis on safety, the spokesperson adds: "Safety is only a core priority this year. People must feel safe in order to speak freely. We've made it far simpler to report multiple tweets relating to the same issue."

Given the ubiquitous nature of its open platform, Twitter remains phenomenally influential. Twitter, despite the many brickbats, is giving millions of people a voice. In the age of hyper news management, Twitter continues to be the main source of breaking news. "Every day, Twitter is getting better as a product. We're making thoughtful choices about how to refine Twitter, and the changes are starting to have a positive impact," says Kaul.

Recently, Twitter revamped its tabs at the top of the feed by launching Connect, a feature aimed at helping users figure out which accounts to follow. In February, it launched two to help businesses ensure better service to their customers.

And, it is even helping businesses grow. East India Comedy, a group of Mumbai-based humourists, mainly relies on Twitter to garner views. Sorabh Pant, one of the founders, feels that the advantage with Twitter is that you are immediately reaching out to the biggest influencers in the country. "If a tweet about a video on YouTube or Facebook gets traction on Twitter, it usually goes viral. So, obviously there is a direct correlation," he says.

Others concede that being on Twitter is a "necessary evil". "I believe there is much good that Twitter serves and despite the virulence of trolls and their sponsors and consistent attempts to use it as a platform to peddle scandal where there is none, it is one of the most effective social media platforms," says Tharoor.

Sardesai too says that being in the "snake pit" is almost unavoidable. But these cautionary tales could well be a deterrent for new users until Twitter finds a way to curtail such sharp attacks.

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First Published: Sat, May 21 2016. 10:10 IST