With Lindy West’s Exit, Will Twitter Finally Do Something About Harassment?

by Erika W. Smith

A few years ago, Lindy West got the worst Twitter troll you can possibly imagine: A man impersonated West’s father, who had recently passed away, and sent her hateful tweets. The troll used a photo of West’s father as his profile photo and had a bio that read: “Embarrassed father of an idiot. Other two kids are fine, though.” His location was listed as “Dirt hole in Seattle.”

West — a feminist, fat acceptance activist and author of Shrill — wrote about her experience confronting this troll for The Guardian, and appeared on an episode of This American Life discussing it. But she stayed on Twitter.

Until now.

West deactivated her Twitter earlier this week and published an essay in the Guardian discussing just how bad Twitter harassment and hate speech has become.

“I deactivated my Twitter account today. It was more of a spontaneous impulse than a New Year resolution, although it does feel like a juice cleanse, a moulting, a polar-bear plunge, a clean slate (except the opposite – like throwing your slate into a volcano and running),” West began, and went on to explain how, for her, the benefits of Twitter no longer outweigh the constant threats, hate speech and harassment:

Twitter, for the past five years, has been a machine where I put in unpaid work and tension headaches come out. I write jokes there for free. I post political commentary for free. I answer questions for free. I teach feminism 101 for free. Off Twitter, these are all things by which I make my living – in fact, they comprise the totality of my income. But on Twitter, I do them pro bono and, in return, I am micromanaged in real time by strangers; neo-Nazis mine my personal life for vulnerabilities to exploit; and men enjoy unfettered, direct access to my brain so they can inform me, for the thousandth time, that they would gladly rape me if I weren’t so fat.

I talk back and I am “feeding the trolls”. I say nothing and the harassment escalates. I report threats and I am a “censor”. I use mass-blocking tools to curb abuse and I am abused further for blocking “unfairly”. I have to conclude, after half a decade of troubleshooting, that it may simply be impossible to make this platform usable for anyone but trolls, robots and dictators.

Twitter has made gestures towards improving — including a recent tweet by CEO Jack Dorsey asking for suggestions — but many feel that it’s just not enough. In the past year or so, Twitter has introduced Twitter moments, a “While You Were Away” feature on the timeline, changed favorites from stars to hearts, and introduced quoting. Yet it has done little to make Twitter better for women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people, many of whom often experience near-constant harassment.

I run BUST’s Twitter, and while “make me a sandwich jokes” have always been there, in the months since the election we’ve received worse tweets than ever: photos of a woman being gang-raped and killed; a comic suggesting that non-Muslim women should reward Islamophobic hate crimes with sex on demand; tweets making fun of the appearances of our staff; tweets saying that we should be raped and/or killed; tweets saying that we should shut up and stop talking about politics. And yes, plenty of “make me a sandwich” jokes as well. I block and report people on a weekly, if not daily, basis. 

West isn’t the first high-profile woman to quit Twitter because of harassment; Leslie Jones publicly quit Twitter this summer after receiving constant racist tweets because of her starring role in Ghostbusters. She later rejoined Twitter after the platform banned Milo Yiannopolous, who had started the harassment campaign against her. At the time, she tweeted: “I leave Twitter tonight with tears and a very sad heart. All this cause I did a movie. You can hate the movie but the shit I got today…wrong.”

Jessica Valenti also temporarily quit Twitter after receiving rape and death threats directed towards her five-year-old daughter. She responded to West’s essay: “Twitter is a worse place without Lindy West, but I get it. Oh man, do I get it.”

Let’s hope that the execs are listening and will finally do something to make Twitter a safer place. But given their past lack of action, I’m not too confident they will.

Top photo by Jenny Jimenez via Facebook/Lindy West

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