A few days ago when Calvin Harris called out Cosmopolitan for criticizing tweets in which he bemoaned Taylor Swift's vindictive actions towards him, an editor at Galore magazine tweeted, “There’s no such thing as bullying a celebrity.” She added, “This idea that celebs can be bullied is a threat to democracy, I’m not exaggerating.” In light of Leslie Jones’ painful experience on Twitter this week, it’s time to revisit the topic—with a much more serious lens.
Following the release of the highly discussed all-female Ghostbusters film, lead actress and comedienne Leslie Jones spent most of her Monday responding to, blocking and reporting racist and sexist Twitter users. In fact, at 1 a.m. on Tuesday, Jones had enough and decided to leave Twitter, in tears from the treatment she received. It was bullying, pure and simple. But this occurrence in particular—juxtaposed with the experience of another, whiter star—speaks to quite a few problems with social media and the policing therein.
When Kim Kardashian lit the internet on fire by exposing Taylor Swift on National Snake Day, Twitter went into a frenzy. In a move reminiscent of Beyonce’s BeyHive reacting to the "Becky with the good hair" lyric, commenters began to litter Swift’s Instagram comment sections with snake emojis. Instagram snapped into action, deleting negative comments and banning the use of that emoji, effectively shielding Swift from her bullies.
On the other hand (and app), Jones’ plea for help and reporting at first turned up nothing at all, save a tweet from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey urging her to DM him. The tweet felt like a PR move, seeing as Dorsey, having co-founded the app, could have easily emailed Jones or slid into her DMs himself, but at least it was a beacon of hope. The move seemed to be the first time the company publicly responded to any person of color’s plea for help with racist harassment, but sources who have interacted with Twitter’s policing force before told Complex that Dorsey likely only offered an apology that the situation was occurring. Three hours later, the tweets were still going.
Jones’ experience isn’t singular. Though Twitter released a statement saying, “This type of abusive behavior is not permitted on Twitter,” many women of color have voiced their failed attempts at seeking refuge from racism and sexism on the site. “They don’t care,” Feminista Jones, an outspoken activist with over 91,000 followers on Twitter, told Complex. “Twitter relies so heavily on the words of black women but also the words of people attacking those women that they can’t afford to stop it.” Feminista herself says she’s been reporting accounts for harassment and bullying for at least four years and none of them have been blocked.
Twitter and Instagram are two different social media websites, with two different policies in place to deal with harassment, but the contrast between how Jones' and Swift's situations were immediately dealt with is hard to ignore, especially when considering the levels of bullying each star was facing. Taylor Swift was being bombarded with snake emojis; Leslie Jones with semen-splattered photos and images depicting almost unimaginable racism. (For a more apples to apples comparison, consider Ciara, who has been beset with and abused by misogynist "Purple Reign" umbrella emojis for months without Instagram taking any action.)
Swift was afforded a privilege that we should arguably all be afforded: protection from unwanted aggressors on the Internet. But as it is in America in general, the plight of people of color, especially women of color, goes unassisted. “Twitter isn’t going to do much other than tell you that you need to protect yourself,” Feminista said. “They put the burden on the victim.”
Fortunately, the horrible abuse Leslie Jones was subjected to may be a turning point in Twitter's approach to harassment. The company seemed to finally grasp the gravity of the situation on Tuesday night, banning Milo Yiannopoulos, who has been credited with igniting the firestorm of hate thrown Jones’ way and is known as a pretty controversial Twitter user. “People should be able to express diverse opinions and beliefs on Twitter,” the company said in a statement. “But no one deserves to be subjected to targeted abuse online, and our rules prohibit inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others. Over the past 48 hours in particular, we’ve seen an uptick in the number of accounts violating these policies and have taken enforcement actions against these accounts, ranging from warnings that also require the deletion of Tweets violating our policies to permanent suspension.”
The app spoke head-on about the problem at large. “We know many people believe we have not done enough to curb this type of behavior on Twitter. We agree. We are continuing to invest heavily in improving our tools and enforcement systems to better allow us to identify and take faster action on abuse as it's happening and prevent repeat offenders. We have been in the process of reviewing our hateful conduct policy to prohibit additional types of abusive behavior and allow more types of reporting, with the goal of reducing the burden on the person being targeted. We’ll provide more details on those changes in the coming weeks.”
It will be interesting to see what that change looks like. It’s beyond time that Twitter begin to implement more complex muting tools, as well as effective reporting and blocking mechanisms, so that everyone can feel safe on the website—not just someone of Taylor Swift’s stature, or complexion.