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“I Unfortunately Have The Equivalent Of 5 PhDs In Twitter Harassment”

Brianna Wu has borne the brunt of online abuse like few others. She says Twitter has made progress in fighting it—but there’s more work left to be done.

“I Unfortunately Have The Equivalent Of 5 PhDs In Twitter Harassment”
Brianna Wu [Photo: Joanne Rathe/The Boston Globe via Getty Images]

Well before most people had given much thought to the problem of harassment on social networks, Brianna Wu became an expert on it, in the worst possible way. The CEO of video game company Giant Spacekat, she became a primary target of Gamergate–the loose-knit campaign by trolls against prominent women in the gaming industry–in 2014. Wu was threatened with rape and death on Twitter and Facebook and had her personal information doxed on 8chan, prompting her to flee her home. Gamergate’s tactics presaged those later used by some members of the alt-right in ways that are still unfolding, and for Wu, the abuse has never entirely dissipated.

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Inspired in part by her experience, Wu is currently running as a Democrat for the U.S. Congressional seat in Massachusetts’ 8th district, with cybersafety as one of her signature issues. I interviewed her as part of our research for our new cover story on Twitter’s struggles to deal with trolls, bots, and other malicious uses of its platform. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Fast Company: As somebody who knows more about this than a lot of people do, and has a perspective that most people don’t have, what’s your general take on how Twitter is currently doing in dealing with issues such as harassment?

Brianna Wu: I feel like I unfortunately have the equivalent of 5 PhDs in Twitter harassment. I’ve said this in many interviews over the years: I think Twitter is doing a better job than they get public credit for. Most of the death threats I get these days are either sent to me on Facebook or through email, because Twitter has been so effective at intercepting them before I can even see them. With doxing, I still have to send at lease one or two reports a day on that, and they’re not great about identifying it and dealing with it.

I personally can see such a drastic difference in the Twitter of 2018 versus 2014 with Gamergate. To me, I don’t think Twitter is really the primary front of this battle. It’s Facebook.

FC: I went back and looked at all the steps Twitter has taken to combat harassment, and there’s been a lot of stuff over the last two years. Is it actually helping?

BW: In my space, it really is helping. I’ll give you a really good example. If you’re running for public office, you were signing up for verbal harassment when you tried to get that job, right? That’s just part of running for office. But I what I really appreciate now is Twitter gives you that button at the bottom, and it says, “Hey, the following tweets may contain offensive or inappropriate material, do you want to see them?” More often than not, I do click that, because I want to know what people are saying to me, but it’s really good to have that choice.

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Another thing they’ve been really good at dealing with are the harassment bots. For most of 2016 and 2017, I would say probably 90% of my Twitter feed was automated bots sending repetitive messages at me. Someone would basically pay bots to send me messages over and over and over again. It made Twitter nearly unusable. They were slow to fix that, but they eventually did.

FC: Did you ever consider just giving up and leaving Twitter?

BW: I actually did. But Twitter is where the conversation is, about what’s important. If you’re not in that conversation, you don’t get a chance to affect things. For me, especially running for office, being on Twitter is a fundamental part of my job.

FC: What further steps should Twitter take to improve the situation?

BW: This is getting into the details, but when you send reports to them, as best as I can tell, they don’t capture as much metadata as they should, and they don’t really take issues on something that might happen again and again and again. Let’s say your address was doxed on Twitter and you have someone that was obsessed with you and kept tweeting out your address and phone number. As best as I can tell, Twitter doesn’t really keep notes in your Twitter account file to follow up on that well. But again, my overall point is I think they’ve done a lot of work and have not gotten the credit they deserve for it.

FC: You mentioned that you’re still having issues with Facebook. Do they have bigger problems to solve than Twitter?

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BW: To the best of my ability to tell, Facebook has done almost nothing since Gamergate. I think this is a really telling example of what’s wrong in Facebook: If someone sends me a death threat on Facebook, or they use a private conservative news page and threaten to kill me, if I try to report that to Facebook, I generally get something on Facebook Messenger offering to let me talk to a human. That’s because it will connect me to one of my friends to talk through my feelings about the death threat. There’s no way to appeal, as best as I can tell, a decision from Facebook if they get it wrong on death threats or doxing. It seems to be very highly automated.

FC: You obviously believe that government can play a role in dealing with some of these issues. Can you talk about what you would like to see happen?

BW: Obviously, whenever the government is getting involved with speech, it gives me a lot of pause. I have a background as a journalist, so that’s something that I take very seriously.

But I’m running for political office. If I put out a campaign ad and try to get it on the local airwaves, they have to follow certain rules about who can buy ads and what they can say. It seems to me that Facebook is just that in the 21st century. When I see stories about Russians buying ads, that gives me tremendous pause. It should be just as illegal for Facebook to sell those ads as it would be for a local television station.

In my industry, the video game industry, in the ’90s, Senator Joseph Lieberman held hearings on the video game industry and violence in video games. Our industry freaked out and realized that was the moment they had to take it seriously. That was the moment Sega worked with Nintendo and we formed the ESRB, which didn’t censor any of the information in video games but did form an independent panel to label video games and let consumers know what was in them. To me, that was the best case scenario, because government looked at it and said, ‘We are willing to take these steps if you won’t.’ And the industry got its act together after that.

I hope to serve on the technology subcommittee. That has very broad jurisdiction over issues like Facebook ads. We need a Congress that’s willing to take a really hard look at these issues.

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FC: Beyond that, are there any steps that the industry could take or should take to deal with some of these issues?

BW: One of the biggest issues, honestly, is on the FBI’s side, the reports about the FBI’s failure to act on Gamergate. They had people confessing to sending me death threats. This is all in the Freedom of Information requests that have come out. They chose to do nothing. I think Congress needs to find a very specific section of the FBI and have agents with money and resources who are specifically tasked to these threats. Look at those teenagers that are receiving death threats for just speaking out on Parkland. Facebook has been entirely ineffectual at dealing with that. There’s a law enforcement component that needs to exist and doesn’t.

FC: Is it accurate to think of Gamergate as being the canary in the coal mine and that it wasn’t taken as seriously as it could have been?

BW: I certainly think so. Gamergate was the proto-alt right. Steve Bannon was one of the first people that saw Gamergate getting a lot of traction and very specifically courted that audience at Breitbart.

It’s really important to say that this isn’t just Republicans that did the wrong thing here. I personally had two different meetings with the Obama Justice Department in the White House asking them to get things done on Gamergate. Eric Holder was the attorney general at the time, and they chose to do nothing. Enabling this alt-right playbook–that’s one of the biggest failures of the Obama administration.

FC: Any final thoughts?

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BW: The last thing I would add is, Facebook and Twitter are the public squares of the 21st century. This is where we have our conversations, this is where we make friends. There’s a strong vested public interest in that public square. I would really, really encourage Facebook and Twitter to step up their game. I certainly don’t want the government to get involved, I would much rather they just got their act in gear. But if they don’t, I do think an entirely new, technologically literate generation of people is running for office. And we’re going to have very serious conversations if they’re not going to do the right thing.

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About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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