The XX Factor

Twitter CEO Admits That Trolling Is Running Off “Core Users.” What’s He Going to Do About It?

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo 

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

As reported Wednesday night on the Slatest, an internal memo from Twitter CEO Dick Costolo was leaked by the Verge on Wednesday, and it cleared up one of the abiding mysteries of the Internet: Do the people at Twitter know how serious their trolling problem really is? The answer turns out to be yes. In response to a question from one of his employees regarding a recent episode of This American Life on this issue, Costolo responded:

We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years. It’s no secret and the rest of the world talks about it every day. We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day. I’m frankly ashamed of how poorly we’ve dealt with this issue during my tenure as CEO. It’s absurd. There’s no excuse for it. I take full responsibility for not being more aggressive on this front. It’s nobody else’s fault but mine, and it’s embarrassing. We’re going to start kicking these people off right and left and making sure that when they issue their ridiculous attacks, nobody hears them.

There have been some high-profile examples of how ugly things can get on Twitter over the years, with Gamergaters tweeting death threats to women who dare criticize video games and trolls harassing Zelda Williams after her father, Robin Williams, committed suicide. But the This American Life episode Costolo’s staffer referred to made the whole issue more visceral by having correspondent Lindy West interview a man who thought it would be funny to pretend to be her dead dad—complete with her dad’s name and picture and details drawn from his obituary—to tweet abuse at her.

Whenever people, particularly feminists, speak out about Twitter harassment, they are met with concerns that a crackdown would somehow suppress tweeters’ right to self-expression. But West’s interview demonstrated that the easy trolling Twitter allows doesn’t serve the trolls themselves any better than the targets. Her harasser explained that he got into trolling because of his low self-esteem and mental health issues and said that Twitter gave him an opportunity to wallow in his worst, most hateful impulses. It was only after she directly asked him to stop that it occurred to him how low he had allowed himself to go. The interview showed that a concern for the rights of trolls is misplaced, that what many of them need is some kind of check on their behavior so that they don’t go further down the rabbit hole of hatefulness. 

Hopefully, Costolo is serious about fixing this problem and not just shoveling out empty promises to keep users from bolting to a safer service. Twitter’s goals of democratizing discourse and promoting free speech are great ones. But refusing to crack down on trolling actually detracts from those goals, by running off people who actually have something to say. Costolo acknowledges this by pointing out that his company is losing core users. This is probably the most important detail in his memo, because it’s only that loss of users that will really pressure Twitter to do something.