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As Twitter Blows the Whistle on Trolls, A Cal Scholar’s Celebrity Makes Her a Target

February 25, 2016
by M.V. Wood

Consider it a coincidental cosmic intersection of two newsworthy items out of UC Berkeley.

The first was the announcement that Twitter—in its ongoing struggle to deter the most savage trolls from the Twitterverse—was forming what it called a Trust & Safety Council, whose members include UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner. As the founding director of the university’s Greater Good Science Center, Keltner has become a go-to guru for media companies from Facebook to Pixar.

At about the same time, Cal sophomore and trivia whiz Niki Peters was winning second prize and $50,000 in TV’s Jeopardy! College Championship—and along with countless congrats and kudos, she also found herself the target of a barrage of nasty tweets.

Fortunately for Peters, a friend who had previously competed on Jeopardy! had warned her that everyone gets skewered by Twitter trolls. So Peters tried to keep it in perspective and even created her own account so she could retweet some of them. “I’d say 99 percent of the time I saw the humor in it, but, there were times when it did get to me,” she admits.  “I was surprised at the sheer numbers of them.”

Several tweets referenced her confidence, often snidely implying she had too much of it. (For the record, Peters has obvious attributes and skills bound to inspire envy.) Quite a few mentioned the desire to punch her in the face.

And one of her favorites reads: “Our national nightmare is finally over. Niki is done ruining Jeopardy.”

When she began to retweet the trolling messages, Peters says some of her Twitter critics doubled their efforts because “they said I was too cocky. But there were also people who wrote back to apologize. They said that once I retweeted them, they realized I must have read them, which meant there was a real person there reading these tweets. They hadn’t thought of me as a real person until then. They felt bad about it.”

That realization—a reminder that social media is really a human-to-human connection—may be the best chance for creating a kinder, gentler social media. “My hope” says Keltner, “is to rely on the science of cooperation and compassion to empower Twitter users to engage in more productive free speech.”

Earlier this month, Twitter’s fourth-quarter report revealed that the San Francisco-based company showed no user growth at all. Its 320 million monthly users are only about one-fifth the size of Facebook’s.

Just a day before the report was released, Twitter announced the creation of the Trust & Safety Council. The description reads, in part: “Twitter empowers every voice to shape the world. But you can’t do that unless you feel safe and confident enough to express yourself freely and connect with the world around you.”

The Twitter panel is new, so nobody’s talking about specifics yet, just goals. “I worked with Facebook on similar issues—how to curtail bullying and harassment, how to improve the safety of women, et cetera,” says Kelter, who helped with Facebook’s selection of emoticons and messaging tools. “We had success there building tools towards these ends and will do similar work for Twitter.”

Dacher Keltner

In the Facebook project, the objective wasn’t only to come up with policies and systems to fight the bullies out there, roaming around the World Wide Web. It was also about building a system that could help users see and circumvent the potential bully inside each of us. The science behind empathy and emotional intelligence shows that if people take certain steps, they can override a negative emotional response and, instead, put their reasonable mind back in control quicker. It’s the difference between lashing out and starting a fight, or stepping back and counting to 10.

For example, the Facebook team had created a new system for dealing with unflattering images. Let’s say you see a picture of yourself someone else has uploaded onto Facebook and you hate it. You get mad and start to wonder if the other person is trying to make fun of you, or embarrass you, or get you in trouble. “What a jerk!” you fume. You’ll deal with them soon enough. But first, as you go to report the image to Facebook, a text box comes up that reads: “Why don’t you like this photo?” You’re given five choices including, “It’s embarrassing,” “It’s a bad photo of me,” “It’s inappropriate,” etc. For those few seconds, you’re guided toward thinking about your feelings. And in so doing, this internal process overrides the process that’s making your blood boil. That’s the first step in resolving what could have become a potentially caustic online confrontation. Some experts believe that if people build their emotional intelligence like this online, the process could become habit and spill over into how they act and communicate in the real world.

“There’s a rich science of how to communicate more cooperatively, how to empathize with others, et cetera, that we hope to rely on to inform Twitter about how to create stronger social networks,” says Keltner.

Compared to other trolling tales, Peter’s post-Jeopardy! experience was mild.

Perhaps the most notorious case-in-point is that of Anita Sarkeesian, the feminist best known for her detailed critiques of sexism in video games. To illuminate what she calls a “sustained intimidation campaign” from male video gamers in what became known as #GamerGate, she once compiled just one week’s worth of hateful tweets—a vicious array in which the trolls fantasized about raping, killing and dismembering her.

“We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years.”

“We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years,” Twitter’s then-CEO Dick Costolo wrote in an internal memo leaked to The Verge last year. He went on to acknowledge that Twitter’s troll problems were driving away users: “We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day.”

The new Trust & Safety Council consists of more than 40 individuals and organizations, including academics, researchers and groups that promote cyber safety and support survivors of abuse. Sarkeesian is one of the advisers. Soon after the council was announced, one of Sarkeesian’s main detractors, Robert Stacy McCain, a conservative blogger and self-described anti-feminist, was suspended from Twitter. Some “Free Stacy” supporters are crying foul and saying that although extreme and blunt, McCain’s posts were not what they deem as abusive or threatening. Instead, he and his supporters have charged that the Twitter panel is devoid of conservatives or libertarians; McCain told San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra J. Saunders that the panel is stacked with leftists who don’t really believe in free speech and that new Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has made them “Twitter’s bouncers.”

For now, some of the most prominent targets of Twitter trolls have sought the best revenge through good old-fashioned (and understated) mockery. Celebrities including Bette Midler, Steph Curry, George Clooney, Benedict Cumberbatch, Salma Hayek and even President Obama have appeared on ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live to read aloud some of the worst tweets about themselves—after which they respond with pouts, eyerolls, giggles or one-liners.

Example: Obama reads a tweet from @theautho: “somebody send obama some lifehacks on how to be a good president. haha. like, I bet that would help. lol”

A bemused Obama replies “You know the lol’s redundant when you have the haha?”

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