Safiyyah Nawaz was once one of the most famous people on Twitter. While watching the ball drop in New York City last year, she tweeted: "This beautiful world is now 2014 years old, amazing." By the time the sun rose, that silly joke had been retweeted 15,000 times. At first, the comments were comical, telling her to "start paying attention in school." The tone escalated quickly. "How dumb can a person be?" one stranger tweeted. A chorus of strangers spiralled into viciousness, peppered with obscenities and racial slurs. "Kill yourself," she was told a hundred times over. "You are what's wrong with the world."
The 17-year-old from North Carolina did not "crawl into a hole," as one tweet advised her; Nawaz responded with remarkable charm.
"Young folks these days b really passionate about the tru age of the earth," she observed. When people began targeting her race, she called them out for guessing incorrectly. Then she decided to optimize her fleeting fame, tweeting about suicide awareness and refugees in Syria. In response to one of her tweets, Snoop Dogg promised her concert tickets.
"Looking back at it," she told me this week, "why would someone feel so hateful toward a stranger that they would tweet these things over a joke?"
To attempt to understand why, I reached out to some of those strangers. Chris, a 17-year-old in California, agreed to speak. "Just f---ing kill yourself," he had tweeted directly to Nawaz, attaching a picture repeating the sentiment. His comment was far from the worst, but he claimed to have "zero recollection" of sending it, which speaks to the ephemeral nature of Twitter. "It was probably something I paid five seconds attention to," he says. He describes Twitter as a "dick-measuring contest," with everyone competing for attention, however they can get it. "I feel like I am speaking for a huge majority of the user base of Twitter. Nobody wants to admit it, but we are all trying to be the rudest, the most funny. You say these things, you don't give it a thought. … It's a weird culture."
Asked about the aggressive message in the tweet, he concedes "it's definitely not a positive thing to communicate." Of course, he didn't mean it. It was just a joke.
How many times have we heard that one? The can't-you-take-a-joke defence is the preferred comeback of trolls everywhere. When female gamers were pilloried with vile tweets after blogging about the industry, they were overreacting. When a small group on Twitter made tasteless racial slurs against the doomed Germanwings passengers, they were just trying to be funny. When malicious strangers chased Robin Williams's daughter off Twitter following her father's suicide, they were only messing around. But if we wouldn't tolerate marauding vandals on main street, why should they get a pass online?
We certainly tweet haphazardly; examples of carelessness abound. But is this excuse better or worse? A Canadian analysis of hateful tweets suggested that half were made by people firing off comments in real time – racial slurs describing their seat mate in the movie theatre, or a racist reference to someone they were watching on the bus. To Irfan Chaudhry, a researcher at the University of Alberta who did the study, this suggests that Twitter may represent our internal thoughts more than we want to admit.
"They don't face any consequences," says Nawaz. "If someone walked up to me at school and said 'Why don't you kill yourself?,' and I told a teacher, they would have gotten in trouble right away."
Last month, Twitter acknowledged that pervasive hate speech and misogyny was a blight on the site (as CEO Dick Costolo declared in a leaked memo, Twitter "sucks" at stopping it). In response, the company announced a new, optional filter system that would block abusive tweets and the people making them – thus leaving them shouting into an empty room. That's a good balance, especially since hateful tweets tend to come in swarms. The filter, however, doesn't do much to stop abusers from moving to a new target, though Twitter is also hiring more content moderators to mute the worst offenders, if only temporarily.
Nawaz, for one, isn't sure she would use the new filter – she would rather know people are tweeting hateful comments at her, so she could report them. Also, she says, it's important for others to engage – it's easier for a crowd to take down a troll, than one individual. "I have grown up with the Internet next to me," she says, "I am definitely used to the horrible things that people can say online."
Those measures are largely a response to people becoming more vocal about calling out hate speech and abuse. Society is stepping in. Comments in defence of Nawaz eventually drowned out the negative ones. Last year, a 24-year-old British woman was charged for threatening a feminist with rape on Twitter. Her defence: She was drunk and didn't mean it. The judge gave her jail time.
Nawaz is still making jokes on Twitter. She says she never truly felt threatened by the comments. She turned off her phone and stopped reading them. To be honest, she enjoyed her moment of online fame. But "maybe that's just me," she says.
Some vile comments, made by buffoons, land harmlessly. But for some people who are targeted, such a barrage can be devastating, career-altering or even dangerous. The overall effect is to make the Internet less welcoming, but the ones slinging their tweets like weapons don't care, or don't get it. (Chris, himself, was more concerned with how his tweets reflected on him than how Nawaz might have felt receiving it.) Filters, however well designed, can be a ham-fisted solution. Courts take too long. The best defence still lies at our fingertips.