Twitter SNAFU lets researchers identify a new kind of harrassment

It's a kind of online harassment that happens all the time, but which we haven't really named. Over at Model View Culture, computer security researcher Leigh Honeywell calls it "opportunistic." And a recent change at Twitter made it clear how this kind of harassment works.

Honeywell describes what "opportunistic" harassment is:

Online harassment varies dramatically in form and intensity, but there is a huge swath of it which is low-grade, opportunistic, and not terribly persistent. These are the online equivalent of a "hey baby" from a street harasser, or an inappropriate leer from a coworker. Their target is never sure which one will escalate to a serious threat, and even the ones which don't escalate can add up to some serious harm when walking past them on a daily basis or having to interact with them at work.

Social networks are perfect places for opportunistic harassers, because it's easy to aggregate all the people you want to harass in one feed, and then just troll them from one easy location. Often, opportunistic harassment isn't really personal. It's directed a class of people, like atheists or feminists or Tea Party members. On Twitter, an opportunistic harasser can just follow everybody who contributes to a #doctorwho hashtag, for example, and then send each person a message saying that Doctor Who sucks.

One of the nice things about social networks, however, is that it's easy to block these opportunistic harassers and never see them again. But that all changed on Twitter in December, when the company changed how its blocking worked.

Honeywell talks about how the Twitter change affected users:

When Twitter changed the scope of its blocking functionality on December 12th, 2013, they made it easier for low-grade harassers to pursue their targets. The change allowed blocked users to continue to "follow" their targets, and to interact with their target's content by retweeting and favoriting it. Previously, these types of interactions were not permitted by blocked users. In attempting to solve the problem of users being retaliated against for blocking, Twitter missed other ways that harassers operate on their service. Retweeting, in particular, is often used by harassers to expose the target's content to the friends of the harasser – potentially subjecting the target to a new wave of harassment. With the blocking functionality changed to work as "mute", targets lost the ability to stop their harassers from retweeting them.

When the unannounced change was noticed, users and commentators argued that a determined harasser could have always copied-and-pasted a target's tweets, set up new accounts, or otherwise worked around the existing blocking functionality, and that the original blocking functionality represented a false sense of security. These arguments ignored the value of that functionality for dealing with unmotivated, low-grade and opportunistic harassers.

She also points out why "solution" offered to this problem — making your account private — is not a solution at all. As a result of arguments like Honeywell's, Twitter rolled back the feature and has restored the old blocking functionality.

It's a fascinating story, and shows how real-life social behaviors get translated to social media, taking on new attributes in the process.

Read the whole article on Model View Culture