Twit­ter takes back sus­pen­sion

Rose Mc­Gowan’s tweets about Har­vey We­in­stein test rules for so­cial me­dia giant.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By David Pier­son and Ben Mues­sig david.pier­son@la­times.com Twit­ter: @dh­pier­son

Rose Mc­Gowan’s sus­pen­sion marks the lat­est stum­ble in re­cent weeks by the so­cial me­dia giant.

Twit­ter’s mod­er­a­tion team has been tested in re­cent weeks by three high­pro­file cases.

An ac­tress-turned-ac­tivist sus­pended for tweet­ing a pri­vate phone num­ber.

A politi­cian whose an­tiabor­tion cam­paign ad Twit­ter cen­sored, and then re­leased in full.

A pres­i­dent whose ac­count Twit­ter de­clined to sus­pend de­spite ac­cu­sa­tions he was vi­o­lat­ing com­pany rules by goad­ing an ad­ver­sary into a nu­clear war.

Though Twit­ter’s ac­tion dif­fered in each case, the in­ci­dents all had one thing in com­mon. Each time, Twit­ter wound up sec­ond-guess­ing it­self.

Such back-track­ing is in­creas­ingly com­mon from the San Fran­cisco so­cial me­dia plat­form, which af­ter years of defin­ing it­self as an out­let for free speech is now get­ting more at­ten­tion for its at­tempts — and some­times its fail­ures — to limit speech on its plat­form.

The most re­cent con­tro­versy be­gan Wed­nes­day when Twit­ter tem­po­rar­ily banned ac­tress Rose Mc­Gowan af­ter a string of tweets about dis­graced Hol­ly­wood mogul Har­vey We­in­stein.

Mc­Gowan, an ac­tress best known for her ap­pear­ance in the TV se­ries “Charmed,” has been pub­licly lam­bast­ing We­in­stein ever since the New York Times pub­lished a re­port last week de­tail­ing decades of sex­ual ha­rass­ment by the stu­dio head.

Mc­Gowan, who was named in the ar­ti­cle as one of We­in­stein’s vic­tims, has also sin­gled out mem­bers of the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try she ac­cused of be­ing com­plicit with We­in­stein, in­clud­ing ac­tor Ben Af­fleck and Ama­zon CEO Jeff Be­zos.

News of her ban­ish­ment first ap­peared on Mc­Gowan’s In­sta­gram ac­count, where she shared a mes­sage from Twit­ter say­ing she had vi­o­lated the plat­form’s rules.

“Twit­ter has sus­pended me,” Mc­Gowan wrote in In­sta­gram. “There are pow­er­ful forces at work. Be my voice.”

Hours later, Twit­ter pub­lished a mes­sage say­ing it had sus­pended the ac­tress be­cause one of her tweets in­cluded a pri­vate phone num­ber.

Soon af­ter, that tweet was re­moved and the com­pany re­in­stated her ac­count. But the plat­form was roundly crit­i­cized for the tem­po­rary ban, fan­ning ac­cu­sa­tions that its en­force­ment of rules is ar­bi­trary and in­ef­fec­tive at tack­ling trolls, one of Twit­ter’s most en­dur­ing problems.

Why, for in­stance, was Mc­Gowan banned for post­ing a phone num­ber, but not Fox Busi­ness Net­work an­chor Lou Dobbs, who once tweeted the ad­dress and phone num­ber of Jes­sica Leeds, a wo­man who came for­ward last year to ac­cuse Trump of grop­ing her?

The in­con­sis­tent ap­proach has raised ques­tions about whether Twit­ter’s lead­er­ship — which has ad­mit­ted short­com­ings in tack­ling abuse — has the gump­tion to man­age a plat­form as ran­corous as theirs.

As a plat­form, Twit­ter is not li­able for most of the con­tent on its net­work. But it keeps in place rules, known as terms of ser­vice, to pre­vent the most egre­gious and il­le­gal be­hav­ior such as death threats and child pornog­ra­phy.

Twit­ter lead­ers have de­scribed the com­pany as “the free speech wing of the free speech party,” il­lus­trat­ing the com­pany’s pride in its hands-off ap­proach to mod­er­a­tion.

This com­mit­ment to free speech has been cred­ited in help­ing spread grass-roots demo­cratic move­ments such as the Arab Spring, and it’s the rea­son Twit­ter is banned in au­to­cratic coun­tries such as China.

But in re­cent years, crit­ics have said the lais­sez-faire ap­proach has turned Twit­ter into a hot­bed of ha­rass­ment — a prob­lem Jack Dorsey, the com­pany’s co­fouder and chief ex­ec­u­tive, has pledged to fix through in­creased mod­er­a­tion.

Twit­ter can use al­go­rithms to flag vi­o­la­tions, but it also re­lies on users and em­ploy­ees to iden­tify and then re­move abu­sive con­tent.

That can be un­wieldy given the hun­dreds of mil­lions of tweets sent each day.

“There’s al­ways go­ing to be the sub­jec­tive side with peo­ple who re­view con­tent and they in­ter­pret rules. You can’t ex­pect it to be like an al­go­rithm, which also makes mis­takes,” said Karen Ko­vacs North, an ex­pert in so­cial me­dia and a com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sor at USC.

“But if you put a pri­vate phone num­ber out there, that’s not sub­jec­tive. You’ve vi­o­lated the rules,” she added.

But what ex­actly are the rules? At times, Twit­ter it­self doesn’t ap­pear par­tic­u­larly sure.

The Mc­Gowan dust-up comes just days af­ter Twit­ter cen­sored a video ad from Rep. Marsha Black­burn, a staunch anti-abor­tion ad­vo­cate, be­cause it in­cluded a state­ment about the sale of fe­tal tis­sue for med­i­cal re­search that the com­pany deemed in­flam­ma­tory. A day later, Twit­ter flipflopped and said it would al­low Black­burn to pro­mote the video “af­ter fur­ther re­view” by the com­pany.

Few ex­am­ples em­body Twit­ter’s elas­tic poli­cies more than its treat­ment of Pres­i­dent Trump. Though crit­ics say Twit­ter would be hard-pressed to find a more clear ex­am­ple of a vi­o­la­tion of its rule against in­cit­ing vi­o­lence than Trump’s tweets about North Korea, the pres­i­dent has been al­lowed to re­main on his plat­form of choice.

Twit­ter pointed to a cri­te­rion it calls “news­wor­thi­ness” — a fac­tor not pre­vi­ously cited pub­licly by the com­pany as play­ing a role in mod­er­a­tion de­ci­sions.

“We hold all ac­counts to the same rules, and con­sider a num­ber of fac­tors when as­sess­ing whether Tweets vi­o­late our rules,” the com­pany said last month in re­sponse to calls to have Trump banned.

“Among the con­sid­er­a­tions is ‘news­wor­thi­ness’ and whether a Tweet is of pub­lic in­ter­est,” the com­pany tweeted from its Pub­lic Pol­icy ac­count. “This has long been in­ter­nal pol­icy and we’ll soon up­date our pub­lic­fac­ing rules to re­flect it. We need to do bet­ter on this, and will.”

In all three in­stances — Mc­Gowan, Black­burn and Trump — the com­pany made a pub­lic state­ment ac­knowl­edg­ing it could have han­dled the sit­u­a­tion bet­ter.

“We need to be a lot more trans­par­ent in our ac­tions in or­der to build trust,” Dorsey tweeted Thurs­day.

But many Twit­ter users saw a dou­ble stan­dard in the treat­ment of the high-pro­file tweet­ers, who re­minded the com­pany that abuse and trolling re­mains ram­pant.

Mc­Gowan could not be reached for com­ment. The ac­tress reached a $100,000 set­tle­ment with We­in­stein in 1997 af­ter an al­leged in­ci­dent in­side a ho­tel room at the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val.

Twit­ter did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment. But in a tweet Thurs­day, Dorsey sug­gested his com­pany was not en­forc­ing rules ar­bi­trar­ily, it was just fail­ing to show the pub­lic it was act­ing fairly.

“We do need to do a bet­ter job at show­ing that we are not se­lec­tively ap­ply­ing rules,” he wrote.

‘Twit­ter has sus­pended me. There are pow­er­ful forces at work. Be my voice.’ — Rose Mc­Gowan, ac­tress, shar­ing a mes­sage on In­sta­gram, af­ter post­ing a string of tweets about dis­graced pro­ducer Har­vey We­in­stein

Richard Shotwell As­so­ci­ated Press

ROSE Mc­GOWAN, shown at a pre­miere in Los An­ge­les in 2015, got her Twit­ter ac­count sus­pended af­ter the so­cial me­dia com­pany said she broke its rules.

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