October 1, 2020

Twitter Suspended Cory Doctorow For Putting Trolls On A List Called ‘Colossal Assholes’

Shout it from the rooftops: content moderation at scale is impossible to do well. Mistakes will always be made, or even “legitimate” decisions will appear “wrong” to many, many people. The latest example: Twitter — which has received criticism for being both too aggressive in shutting down accounts and not nearly aggressive enough (sometimes by the same people) — suspended Cory Doctorow’s account earlier this week. The reasoning for the suspension? He would put various trolls onto a Twitter list called “colossal assholes” before muting them, and Twitter claimed this violated its policies (though the company only told him well after it suspended him):

I woke up yesterday morning and discovered that my account was locked. There was no explanation, either in the app, the site or my email for this. I contacted everyone I knew at Twitter, and everyone who knew anyone at Twitter. At 830AM Pacific – about 5h after the suspension – I got an email from support – saying I’d been suspended for having a list to which I add trolls called “colossal assholes.”

I’m not sure that this qualifies as a ToS violation (I gave up reporting trolls who called me much worse, because Twitter inevitably replied that these epithets were not prohibited), but it’s super-weird that they suspended me without warning or explanation. Also weird: I could not rename the list while suspended, only delete it (I tried to rename it “thoroughly unpleasant individuals”).

Weirder: “Colossal assholes” got me suspended, but not its companion list, “Toe-faced shitweasels”

Given the kind of language that I regularly see on Twitter, I agree that this certainly appears to be a silly decision (as is the failure to let him just rename the list, not to mention the failure to notify him until many hours later). At the same time, going back to the Masnick Impossibility Theorem, I can totally see how this happened, where a content moderator (perhaps alerted by some keyword-checking algorithm) flagged the list “colossal assholes” and decided that maybe it violated Twitter’s prohibition on abuse/harassment or hateful conduct.

The issue, of course, is that an overworked content moderation team isn’t going to be in a position to explore who Cory is, how he’s using that list or — most importantly — if the list is actually made up of “colossal assholes.” It’s just going to pull the plug. Of course, there’s an argument that merely adding an account to a list is not a form of harassment — but that ignores the fact that just a few months ago Twitter was heavily criticized for not doing enough to stop trolls from abusing the list feature to harass people.

Again: getting this right is impossible. One person’s trolling is another person’s counter trolling. One person’s impassioned debate is another person’s harassment. There’s literally no way to get this right — though I do think that this one looks particularly silly and that Twitter’s notification process here could have been much better (also it should have let him change the list name, rather than just deleting it).

In the meantime, Cory has announced that he’s renamed all of his lists:

Also, in response to Twitter’s sensitivity about “colossal assholes” as a listname, I’ve renamed and expanded my lists.
Potent emetics
Tissue-thin bad faith
Foolish timewasters
Beneath contempt
Odious nonsense-spewers
Confederate gravy-eaters
Toe-faced stenchweasels
Hilariously inept lackwits
Probably bots
Thick as two short planks
Raving conspiracists
Sociopath climate deniers
Dim bulb centrists
Inept MAGA trolls
Red scare bedwetters

I get the feeling some people could end up on, well, nearly all of those lists.
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