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A 3D printed Twitter logo is seen in this illustration picture made in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, February 3, 2016. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)
A 3D printed Twitter logo is seen in this illustration picture made in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, February 3, 2016. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

COMMENTARY

BuzzFeed writer’s harassment just the latest example of why Twitter is broken for women Add to ...

A social media firestorm has erupted after Scaachi Koul, an editor and writer for BuzzFeed Canada, shut down her Twitter account after several days of being slammed with abusive tweets.

The circumstances of her departure from the service – being harassed by a group of people who mostly identify as men or with so-called men’s rights issues and use the network’s features to shout whatever they want at whomever they want – were utterly typical in some ways. And yet what happened to Ms. Koul was not the product of one bad weekend. It was the almost inevitable climax to a crescendo of negativity that began months ago for her and that happens to thousands of women every day on all sorts of platforms, but particularly on Twitter.

What exactly happened here? On Feb. 18, Ms. Koul, an editor and writer at BuzzFeed Canada, asked her social media followers to submit pitches for freelance writing opportunities: “Would you like to write longform for @BuzzFeedCanada? WELL YOU CAN. We want pitches for your Canada-centric essays & reporting,” she wrote, followed by a second Tweet: “@BuzzFeedCanada would particularly like to hear from you if you are not white and not male.”

Because Ms. Koul is not new to Twitter, she then almost perfectly predicted how a segment of the reading audience would respond to her request.

“IF YOU’RE A WHITE MAN UPSET THAT WE ARE LOOKING MOSTLY FOR NON-WHITE NON-MEN … I DON’T CARE ABOUT YOU … GO WRITE FOR MACLEAN’S.”

Indeed, some white men who write for Maclean’s (and others on Reddit, and in some of the darker corners of the men’s rights activist movement) got upset. On Saturday, Maclean’s columnist Scott Gilmore wrote, “This legal analysis lists all the Cdn human rights & labour laws violated by @Scaachi’s look-at-me-I’m-edgy job ad: tp://lawofwork.ca/?p=6574.” Maclean’s political editor (and one-time federal election debate moderator) Paul Wells suggested Mr. Gilmore could not read, and was insane, and that people were overreacting, but also that he had blocked Ms. Koul “long ago because I think she is an utter pill.” Ms. Koul’s boss, Craig Silverman, responded that the request for pitches is not a job ad. Neither Ms. Koul nor Mr. Silverman are commenting to media about the events of recent days.

By the way, all these @Scaachi tweets have been deleted, but they were collected here by Alex Griswold, an editor with U.S. media criticism site Mediaite.com who formerly worked for right-wing outlet Daily Caller and conservative talk-show host Laura Ingraham. Mr. Gilmore linked to it in his initial response.

Full disclosure: While I’ve never had a coffee with Ms. Koul, we are (were) Twitter pals, and I commissioned her to write freelance pieces for The Globe and Mail when I was the technology section editor. I did that because I think she is brilliant and cool and impossible to ignore, so I am not unbiased. BuzzFeed Canada, her employer, also seems to think highly of her, as do the CBC and TVO, both of which book her on TV panels to talk about media and the Internet. Talk-show host Shad has a regular “social experiment correspondent” segment he does with Ms. Koul on his CBC radio show Q, where she recently mocked morning raves. She also has a forthcoming book, The Pursuit of Misery (spring 2017), published by Doubleday Canada, an imprint of Penguin Random House, where she formerly worked for the digital magazine Hazlitt. She has written for Maclean’s, Toronto Life, The New Yorker, The Guardian US and The National Post.

In other words, she is what some may call a mainstream figure.

On Twitter and other platforms, her notoriety simply earns her more hatred. For instance, here is an example of the invective hurled at Ms. Koul by the charmingly named @Bloodyseabird: “Brown rat pooing in the street pooing on paper can’t eat white bread so hate white people in a country built by white people.” Here are some even more vile sentiments sent her way, if you need more examples of racialized hate speech. At one point Ms. Koul tweeted that someone had tweeted she should be raped as a punishment for her words.

On the weekend, the attacks picked up after stories about the issue were retweeted by the self-described “fabulous supervillain” Milo Yiannopoulos (@nero), an online provocateur with 168,000 followers on Twitter, and a hero among the Gamergate and men’s rights activist movements.

But this is hardly Ms. Koul’s first time being called a racist by white men who traffic in faux outrage and grievance. Her writing forthrightly discusses race, colour, feminism and culture, all of which singles her out for attacks from Twitter trolls like Toronto resident @absolutelegend, who responded to Yiannopoulos: “Toronto is infested Milo, come help us exterminate (not a death threat) these feminist bugs from our great city.” There have been countless cases of harassment on Twitter, not least the recent case of Toronto writer Stephanie Guthrie. Ms. Guthrie quit the network in January after men’s rights activists deluged her account with abuse following the acquittal of Gregory Alan Elliott, who had been charged with criminally harassing her via Twitter.

What does it say about Twitter when witty, feisty and feted writers quit the network? It says something that white men on Twitter (like me) may know intellectually, but somehow still seem to misunderstand: Twitter is broken for women.

I recently met with the new general manager of Twitter Canada, Rory Capern, who used to be with Google Canada, and at one point, he mentioned that 10 years in (the anniversary is in March), Twitter was still trying to figure out what the network was for. CEO Jack Dorsey said during the latest earnings call that Twitter was all about “live,” as in happening right now, in video and text. But that’s a curiously valueless statement that does little to explain Twitter’s role in the content and tone of the network it provides, free of charge, for its users. Former CEO Dick Costolo had famously claimed that Twitter was the free-speech wing of the free-speech party, and some users seem to have decided that free speech means freedom to spout invective.

In 2014, Twitter partnered with Women, Action, and the Media (WAM!) to evaluate user reports of abuse. By examining 800 reports, it found that 27 per cent of complaints were about hate speech, 12 were threats of violence and 22 per cent were doxxing, which is the name for attempts to uncover the real identity or location of users, which is seen as an incitement to take harassment into the offline world.

Ms. Koul has publicly shared examples of Twitter’s failure to respond to attacks on her such as doxxing, and had given up attempting to report harassers.

Vijaya Gadde, a general counsel for Twitter, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post in April, 2015, that acknowledged the problem: “As some of our users have unfortunately experienced firsthand, certain types of abuse on our platform have gone unchecked because our policies and product have not appropriately recognized the scope and extent of harm inflicted by abusive behaviour. Even when we have recognized that harassment is taking place, our response times have been inexcusably slow and the substance of our responses too meagre. Freedom of expression means little as our underlying philosophy if we continue to allow voices to be silenced because they are afraid to speak up. We need to do a better job combatting abuse without chilling or silencing speech.”

Almost a year later, and Twitter is still searching for that balance. By the time it does, will any women be left on the service to celebrate it?

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