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Twitter's dilemma: protecting users' safety vs. ad revenue concerns

Twitter is rolling out new features to protect users from abuse and harassment, but some might argue that these features do not go far enough, putting Twitter in a tight spot.

These new features involve stemming the creation of new abusive accounts, safer search and filtering or collapsing abusive replies. Twitter is attempting to stop the flow of abuse and harassment that is driving some users to leave the platform altogether.

?Making Twitter a safer place is our primary focus,? said Ed Ho, vice president of engineering at Twitter. ?We stand for freedom of expression and people being able to see all sides of any topic. 

?That?s put in jeopardy when abuse and harassment stifle and silence those voices,? he said. ?We won?t tolerate it and we?re launching new efforts to stop it.?

Stopping abuse
While social media has given us the unparalleled gift of being able to connect instantly with anyone around the world, that same freedom comes with a darker side.

Stories of social media abuse, harassment campaigns and threatening messages have abounded, particularly over the last few years during firestorms such as Gamergate.

These incidents have led many to criticize Twitter?s perceived impassivity to the abuse inflicted on some of its users. Many openly abusive or hateful accounts remain open on Twitter, including neo-Nazi groups and white supremacists.

Twitter has been trying to push back against this characterization, doing more to make its users feel safe and not as if Twitter does not care about their well-being on the platform.

Users can now collapse less relevant and abusive tweet replies

The latest attempt to work towards that goal sees Twitter implementing three new changes to the platform that will make it a safer place for users.

The first step involves stopping the creation of new accounts by people who have been permanently banned on other accounts.

Secondly, Twitter is making search safer by removing tweets from blocked or muted accounts from a user?s search results.

Finally, Twitter is working to identify low-quality and abusive replies on tweets so that they can be collapsed and safely scrolled past without the user having to be subjected to them.

These tweets will still be viewable if the user decides they want to see them, but they will by default be hidden.

?Building on the work we began in November, we?re continuing to work on ways to give people more control over what they see on Twitter,? Mr. Ho said. ?Last week, we introduced an improvement to reporting abusive Tweets that gives people experiencing targeted harassment more ways to report it.?

Social safeguards
While these new features are certainly a step in the right direction for many, some may see it as Twitter avoiding the real problem ? their reluctance to outright ban people who threaten and abuse others.

Most of these features make it easier for the victims to block themselves off from their abusers, hiding their tweets and making sure that they do not show up in any other form, but it still leaves the abusers on the site.

Some speculate that this might be because Twitter is reluctant to ban users who are still a source of ad revenue for the platform. The math may show that it is more profitable to keep the abusers and potentially lose the victims who leave the site voluntarily than to outright ban all abusive accounts from the start.

Not all users are happy with the perceived reluctance with which Twitter makes these changes

Ultimately the deciding factor may be ad revenue and numbers and not the well-being of the users. Protecting that revenue is important as Twitter pulls back from its ?Buy button? initiative from a few months ago (see story).

But the platform will have to strike a balance if it does not want to end up like other brands in contentious situations ? such as Uber?s #deleteuber fiasco (see story).

For now, no one can argue that the steps Twitter is taking are a good start to keeping their users safe from abuse and harassment. The real question is how far is Twitter willing to go to keep it up.

?In the days and weeks ahead, we will continue to roll out product changes ? some changes will be visible and some less so ? and will update you on progress every step of the way,? Mr. Ho said. ?With every change, we?ll learn, iterate, and continue to move at this speed until we?ve made a significant impact that people can feel.?