Twitter Is Giving Trolls a Cheat Sheet

Its “Moments” are supposed to capture the platform’s best conversations. But they unleash hell on the users unlucky enough to be featured there.

Twitter Moments turn the network’s users into targets.
Photo illustration by Slate.

Popularity is the implied goal of every tweet. Each 280-character set is measured numerically thrice: by tallies of replies, retweets, and likes. But many longtime Twitter users have learned that it’s preferable not to be too relevant or too influential. That’s because being made part of a Twitter Moment—the Twitter equivalent of a story on A1, the site’s attempt to distill the organic conversations that happen on the social network into digestible nuggets—can put a target on one’s back.

An example: After writer Lauren Ingram expressed her indignation on Sunday at provocateur Germaine Greer’s insensitive comments about Harvey Weinstein’s victims and discussed her own rape in relation to Greer’s statements, Twitter made her tweet part of a Moment. Predictably, Ingram soon posted that she was receiving “all kinds of abuse in [her] mentions, including people claiming [she’s] lying about being raped and/or should be grateful for being raped.” The willful naïveté that Twitter, like so much of Silicon Valley, demonstrates with regard to how its services will be weaponized against its own users would be shocking if it weren’t so ubiquitous. While it’s true that any tweet can rocket outside a user’s usual silo without a corporate push, Moments increasingly feels like what happens when Twitter shoves you inside its cannon and lights the fuse.

When Twitter launched Moments in October 2015, it must’ve seemed like an obvious next step. With hundreds of millions of users, a bit of curation would go a long way in identifying which topics were trending and which opinions were gaining traction. (If we’re being honest, the feature also dangles in front of ordinary users a taste of viral fame.) Selected by Twitter staff, each Moment collects several tweets on a subject and publishes them in the prominent Moments tab, which is displayed between the all-important Home and Notifications tabs on desktop. (It’s less prominent on mobile.) Many tweeters ignore the feature, but Moments is considered important enough to be accused of bias from both sides, indicted for amplifying fake news, and followed by more than half a million users on its own Twitter account. Most troublingly, Twitter gets to declare what constitutes news via Moments, then provide easy access to those “newsmakers.”

That’s fine in theory. But as Ingram’s experience with Moments illustrates, being made hypervisible and newsworthy can court aggression and harassment. And because users whose tweets are turned into Moments are not notified beforehand, there may be very little time between taking pride in a resonant tweet and being subject to a cascade of invective.
Ingram told me via email that the “wave of abuse” she encountered after Twitter spotlighted her story of her rape forced her to delete the app from her phone, because it became impossible to block those aggressors effectively. Ingram added that she hopes that the Moments team will inform users earlier if the tweets they showcase deal with “a particularly personal or sensitive topic.”

But a Moment doesn’t need to be intimate to become a serious irritant. On Monday, film and TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz declared his intention to “delet[e] any Tweet featured in Twitter moments, because it invariably brings in a flood of people who don’t read past one Tweet and miss the point you made originally and are only there to do a drive-by on you.” In his deleted (and Momentified) post, Seitz had conveyed his dislike of the Razzies (the anti-Oscars for the worst movies) for reliably going after easy targets. After being made part of a Moment, Seitz found himself a target for the third or fourth time. Deleting a Moment tweet, he told me in an email interview, is “self-protection.”

If Ingram’s attackers likely came after her armed with an ideological bent, Seitz guesses that his faultfinders just want someone to yell at. “What [Twitter] failed to take into account” with Moments, he wrote, “is that there are a lot of people who go on Twitter just because they’re bored and looking for a little antagonism to liven up their day.” In Seitz’s view, Twitter Moments round up a bunch of prey for trolls to feed on. “There’s a thing on Twitter called dog-piling,” he continues, “where you flex your muscles by quote-Tweeting somebody you disagree with or think is stupid, then sit back and watch your followers go attack them or argue with them or just sort of generally make their day a little bit worse.” (With quote-tweets, users quote and link to another user’s tweets, with varying motivations.) For Seitz, “Twitter Moments is basically formalized Twitter dog-piling, enacted by the company itself.”

Just the specter of out-of-nowhere nastiness can make Twitter an anxious place to be after becoming a Moment. Two months ago, one of my tweets, a feel-good call for pictures of women in suits, got the spotlight from Twitter. It was more overwhelming than fun—there were so many replies—but a stray comment by a random tweeter about hating seeing women in suits kept me in uneasy anticipation of ruder, more misogynistic unpleasantness. (Fortunately, none arrived.) I had a repeat of that afternoon last week, when another tweet that was selected for a Moment—this time about the TV remake of Heathers—meant hours of bracing for negativity (and this experience was as a verified user, meaning I have a bit more control over notifications and replies).

Unless a user’s account is made private, all tweets are public. Anyone who uses Twitter knows that or finds out soon enough. But most of our accounts, including the verified ones, are relatively sleepy, and our core followers tend to subscribe to us because they’re interested in what we have to say. Getting elevated into a Moment is akin to being Hannah Montana for a day—but instead of the wealth and adulation that accompany greater prominence, you mostly sample the vitriol that politicians, celebrities, and other famous figures tend to attract without the barriers that help keep those people sane. A few options remain: deleting the tweet like Seitz, deleting the app like Ingram, or muting the post (an idea I got from writer Noah Cho). But it should really be up to Twitter to interrogate how their features can negatively impact their users and/or be misused for nefarious purposes. Twitter is toxic enough without the trolls getting a cheat sheet from the company itself.