#Twitter troll problem may have killed its chances for a buyout deal

Twitter troll problem
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No one wants to buy Twitter – not right now, anyway. Plenty of official reasons have been given, but an unofficial reason may be trolls.

Of the internet kind, that is.

Various companies, from Google and Disney to Salesforce.com, were reportedly in talks to make a bid for Twitter, but eventually they all walked away, leaving Twitter to go it alone.

The official reasons Twitter’s potential suitors dropped out are fairly straightforward – no one knows how to monetize it, and they weren’t really just sure where Twitter would fit into their particular portfolio.

However, Business Insider is reporting that a key reason Salesforce bowed out was Twitter’s troll problem:

[…] according to CNBC’s “Mad Money” host Jim Cramer, Salesforce was turned off by a more fundamental problem that’s been hurting Twitter for years: trolls.

“What’s happened is, a lot of the bidders are looking at people with lots of followers and seeing the hatred,” Cramer said on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street,” citing a recent conversation with [Salesforce CEO Marc] Benioff. “I know that the haters reduce the value of the company…I know that Salesforce was very concerned about this notion.”

It turns out Disney was concerned about the same thing, reports Bloomberg:

Twitter has for years faced criticism for its hands-off approach to abuse and harassment on its service. Because people don’t have to use their real names, racist, sexist and anti-Semitic internet “trolls” have thrived on the platform. The company has pledged to become more serious about the issue in the last year, working on solutions such as letting people block keywords. Still, attacks this year have led to temporary departures of high-profile users including Leslie Jones, an actress in the movie Ghostbusters, as well as a New York Times journalist.

Disney’s discomfort with abuse on the site indicates that it’s a larger problem for Twitter’s business prospects than its executives imagined.

Trolls have been around for as long as the World Wide Web has existed, of course, and they have particularly flourished on pretty much all social media sites. But that’s why most online sites with an interactive social aspect have a conduct/moderation policy of some kind where abusive or offensive comments are not tolerated.

Twitter has one too, but until recently has been very lax about enforcing it, mainly in an attempt to promote a common-carrier “freedom-of-speech” approach to social media, under which everyone has a right to express their views, no matter how obnoxious, rude or offensive.

However, the price for that approach has been a long-standing troll problem and an increasingly bad reputation for it. Twitter has been constantly criticized for being too slow to crack down on the kinds of abuse that led to the above case involving Leslie Jones, who publicly quit Twitter after receiving a barrage of racist abusive tweets orchestrated by Breitbart technology editor Milo Yiannopoulos.

Twitter did ban Yiannopoulos eventually, but it took Jones’ high-profile departure to convince them to do it. And as has been pointed out elsewhere, there are many, many other Twitter users dealing with similar forms of abuse whose tormenters are not banned – perhaps because no one involved is famous enough.

This is a basic dilemma that all social media services face: they resist banning trolls because the social media business model thrives on having as many users signed up as possible. But “free speech” is a poor defense for letting trolls run rampant.

Which is not to say free speech is a bad thing. But here’s a basic point a lot of people miss: “free speech” is primarily a political ideal that says the government cannot legally prevent the media or anybody else from criticizing it, or jailing them as punishment for doing so. This is cool and wise.

But it is not a license for saying any old thing you want about anything or anyone in social situations – online or offline – with no fear of reprisals. It’s like any social gathering – if a party guest goes around yelling vile insults at other guests about their looks, race or political beliefs, no decent host would defend their right to free speech. They would chuck the loudmouthed dingbat out on his ear.

Moreover, private media companies like Twitter are not the government. They have the editorial capability – and I would argue the responsibility – to impose rules that limit speech for the purpose of protecting all users from abuse and harrassment. (Think of it as a CEM strategy, if that helps.)

Yes, sometimes this can also be dictated by government laws and regulations (see: Thailand instructing its cellcos to police their users for anti-royal commentary), and we can argue all day over whether this is a good or bad thing. The point is that social media needs editorial oversight to be as inclusive as possible.

It’s not easy, and requires a heavily nuanced balancing act that understands the difference between, say, stating an unpopular opinion and directing that opinion at other users in a manner intended to harass and/or threaten them. But it needs to be done.

And while Twitter has been making efforts to be better at it, it should have made that effort a long time ago, and the company’s failure to get its abuse problem under control may just have cost it a lucrative business deal.

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