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Twitter says it's flagging abusive tweets so you don't have to

Algorithms are now able to proactively report about 38 per cent of abusive tweets, compared to zero last year, says Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.

38% of abusive tweets are now reported by algorithms, CEO Jack Dorsey says at TED2019

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, speaking at the Vancouver TED conference on April 16, 2019, has faced criticism over the platform's abusive content. (Ryan Lash/TED)

It's not an easy time to be Twitter's chief executive officer.

Consider one of the first questions that Jack Dorsey, CEO of the social media giant, fielded Tuesday at the TED2019 conference in Vancouver.

"What worries you about Twitter?" TED curator and moderator Chris Anderson asked.

Dorsey, who sat with his hands clasped at the start of the spirited 30-minute exchange, was frank. 

"The health of the conversation," he said. "Our purpose is to serve the public conversation. We've seen a number of attacks on it. We've seen abuse. We've seen harassment. We've seen manipulation."

The social platform that Dorsey, 42, co-founded in 2006 now boasts 330 million active users and generated more than $3 billion US in revenue in 2018.

The company has also struggled for years to block abusive accounts and, more recently, curb the spread of fake news.

On Tuesday, Dorsey, sporting a black beanie, black sneakers and a nose ring, sought to bring some optimism.

Algorithms now proactively report about 38 per cent of abusive tweets, compared to zero last year, which means that users don't have to, he said.

"Our big focus is on removing the burden of work from the victims."

Focus on conduct

It's part of Twitter's strategy to make the platform healthier and safer.

Roughly 100,000 accounts were suspended for creating new accounts after a suspension between January and March — a 45 per cent increase from the same time in 2018, the company said Tuesday.

And about three times more abusive accounts were suspended within 24 hours of being reported, versus the same time last year.

But algorithms monitoring content doesn't mean abusive users are banned. Staff are still tasked with reviewing each tweet and account that's reported, Dorsey said.

It's an extraordinary battle given the scale of the problem. Dorsey wouldn't divulge how many tweets are sent out per day, nor the size of staff assigned to review content that violates the platform's terms of service.

But who they choose to ban versus keep remains under fierce scrutiny, none perhaps more than far-right extremist groups.

Twitter focuses on conduct versus content, Dorsey said. Staff will determine whether an account is associated with a violent extremist group rather than outright ban it for posting the offensive material.

Viewers were invited to ask Dorsey questions in real time using the #AskJackAtTED hashtag. (Bret Hartman/TED)

New vision

It's an answer that won't please everyone, a point that Anderson, the moderator, later raised.

"It's hard to imagine a more important role in the world," he told Dorsey. "You're doing a brilliant job of listening, Jack. But actually dial up the urgency and move on this stuff. Will you do that?" 

There was no passionate assurance from Dorsey.

Instead, he offered a vision of Twitter that's less fixated on followers, likes and retweets, and more focused on healthy conversations and connecting people with similar interests.

"Quickness will not get the job done," he said. 

"I'm proud of all the frameworks that we've put in place. I'm proud of our direction. We obviously can move faster, but that required just stopping a bunch of stupid stuff we were doing in the past."

About the Author

Alex Migdal

Journalist

Alex Migdal is a journalist and social media editor for CBC News in Vancouver. He's previously reported for The Globe and Mail, Guelph Mercury and Edmonton Journal. You can reach him at alex.migdal@cbc.ca.

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