Voices: We need to talk about the sinister side of Twitter Circle

·4-min read

Safeguarding has never been Twitter’s strong point. Last year, after months of soul-destroying searches and investigation, I revealed that the site was being used as part of a child sexual exploitation network. Users were publicly posting graphic video clips of children being sexually abused to act as advertisements leading to the Telegram app, where customers could buy the full videos.

A spokesperson for Twitter at the time told me they had a “zero-tolerance policy for child sexual exploitation content” and “aggressively [fought] online child sexual abuse”, but the problem had only come to my attention because a group of teens and early-twentysomethings had made it their mission to hunt down the material and report it. Prior to their efforts, the global network had free reign.

The introduction of Twitter Circle, launched on Tuesday, as “a way to send tweets to select people, and share your thoughts with a smaller crowd” sounds on the surface like a great idea. But for groups engaged in the above, it would be a godsend. Circles can include up to 150 people who can see and interact with, but not retweet, your content. Perfect if you’re using the platform to organise illegal activity.

The idea that Circle will limit hate speech and the targeting of accounts is ludicrous, given that the 150 people within your circle do not actually have to be your followers or people whom you follow. Trolls can easily use it to create a targeted group, free from the scrutiny of the rest of Twitter as only those within the circle can see what is sent. Add in the fact that once you’re added to a circle you can only leave it by blocking the owner, and the potential for abuse is huge.

Via Circle, extremist groups will be able to hide in plain sight, as will politicians and others who need a following but not an audience. If the platform is being used to create a new political party, an extremist fringe group or to further spread dangerous conspiracies, nobody will know. And, more importantly, Twitter will likely never receive or have to act on reports about their activity.

This lack of responsibility appears to be the main purpose of the new feature. Twitter’s reporting function has never been fit for purpose: most of us will have reported accounts sharing racist, misogynistic and antisemitic hate, only to receive a response to the equivalent of “we don’t think they have broken the rules, have you tried blocking them?”. Under current law, Twitter is not liable for anything shared on its platform, so the motivation to remove harmful content seems to come down to personal whim.

Rather than admit that they have a far-right problem – members of the New British Union, Patriotic Alternative, US far-right groups and countless groypers all hold active accounts – Twitter, acting as the world’s most ineffectual substitute teacher, would rather tell us to “just ignore them”.

Even when such accounts are finally suspended, there appears to be little to stop them from returning, as proven by the existence of “BritishDean”; a Devon-based misogynistic far-right troll whose account has been banned and regenerated over 70 times.

As a journalist who writes about inflammatory issues, Circle creates another problem. Much of the backlash received by me and others comes via responses on Twitter to articles we have written. The only solution Circle offers to curtail this hate is to limit the sharing of our work to a select group of 150 people – which renders Twitter completely useless as a professional platform. Likewise for politicians such as David Lammy, who are continually targeted by trolls, the option to limit tweets to a tiny percentage of followers is hardly an effective solution.

The concept of free speech has become a far-right dog whistle because of platforms like Twitter refusing to limit hate speech. The idea that we should be able to post insults and libellous comments and bully people because “I’m entitled to my opinion” is ludicrous. Likewise, nobody is limiting your freedom of speech by preventing you from forming an online army to share video clips of your misogynistic rape apologia.

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These are the basic standards to which we hold each other in any reasonable society. The lack of responsibility taken by platforms such as Twitter has created, in some, the belief that being allowed to share any viewpoint somehow makes that viewpoint acceptable. As seen in the trials for the 6 January insurrection, this is not the case.

It should not take thousands of complaints, a political insurrection or an organised campaign to remove the far right from a public platform. It should not take weeks and months of rape and death threats before women’s complaints are taken seriously. And the solution offered should never be “have you tried hiding in a circle of 150 people?”.

Rather than respond to their burning house by suggesting we all crowd into the tiny shed they just built, Twitter needs to grab a hose and put the fire out.