Twitter delays removing racist and sexist tweets targeting Vice President Kamala Harris, report finds

Replies to tweets by Vice President Kamala Harris, the country’s highest black official, routinely include racist, sexist and graphic messages that threaten her safety. A new report finds that hate tweets directed at Harris are rampant, while Twitter has been slow to respond and has sometimes failed to act appropriately.

According to Bot Sentinel, a nonpartisan research organization working to combat disinformation and targeted harassment online, during the first five months of this year, more than 4,200 tweets directed at Harris included the use of the n word, manipulated graphic images, and death threats.

“All these tweets violated your rules and policies when you look at them, and we made that available in the report,” Christopher Bouzy, founder of Bot Sentinel, told CBS News. “It shows manipulated photos, for example, of her in lewd sexual acts. I mean, that’s obvious, but it came back that it didn’t violate their policies.”

A Twitter spokesperson told CBS News that the platform’s initial assessment of the tweets reported to them was incorrect and admitted that mistakes were made in enforcing the platform’s content moderation rules.

Bouzy said her team began the research project after a group of prominent black women signaled to Bot Sentinel in January that Twitter was ignoring their numerous reports of abusive tweets directed at the vice president.

“They were getting the same messages we ended up getting, that these tweets weren’t violating their policies,” Bouzy said. He added that he was “shocked” by Twitter’s initial response to his reports of blatantly racist and threatening tweets.

Bot Sentinel, which uses Twitter’s rules of engagement as a guide for its research studies, released a set of 40 tweets last week. Twitter initially removed just two of them, ignored 18 of them, and said the remaining 20 abusive tweets — including one threatening to kill Harris — did not violate the platform’s policies, according to Bot Sentinel.

Bouzy said that days after the initial report, Twitter suspended 10 of the accounts and removed all 40 of the tweets. A Twitter spokesperson said that prior to the Bot Sentinel report, 10 of the referenced tweets were reviewed by the platform but did not violate the rules of engagement.

Upon further analysis, Twitter determined that these tweets needed to be removed and that their initial assessment was incorrect.

Twitter’s rules of engagement prohibit users from attacking others with repeated racial slurs that aim to dehumanize and promote negative stereotypes. The platform also prohibits content that wishes or expresses a wish for the death of another user.

Penalties include requiring the removal of tweets and suspending accounts when the platform determines that your primary intent is to engage in hateful conduct. In some cases, Twitter will also downgrade tweets in responses and make them ineligible for amplification in search results. The logic here is to lessen the risk of potential damage in the real world by limiting the tweet’s visibility on the platform.

Twitter said the goal is to remove problematic tweets as quickly as possible, before users even report them, but acknowledged mistakes happen when its content moderation teams are working at scale.

On Monday, Bot Sentinel released the second part of its report, with screenshots and links to more than 1,300 tweets of a similar nature, in addition to the original 40 released last week.

The research showing racist tweets directed at Harris comes as white supremacist sentiments seep into American society and politics. Last month, an 18-year-old drove more than 200 miles and killed 10 black shoppers and injured three others at a supermarket in Buffalo. Police said the shooting suspect was racially motivated, targeted the area because of its high percentage of black residents, and wanted to kill as many blacks as possible.

Several Republican candidates running for office in 2022 are trying to gain support by warning voters about the “grand theory of substitution,” a racist talking point that falsely claims that minorities are conspiring with Democrats to diminish the role of whites in the United States. .

Online harassment of women across the political spectrum has been documented on Twitter in the past. Politicians, journalists and media organizations are often criticized by users hiding behind a screen.

But studies show that women of color are three times more likely to be mentioned in abusive or problematic tweets, according to a report by Amnesty International. The 2018 study also found that black women were 84% more likely than white women to be mentioned in hateful tweets.

Bouzy said former vice president Mike Pence was also routinely attacked by critics on Twitter, but the language directed at him was not the same. He said Bot Sentinel is reviewing tweets directed at Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, two far-right representatives who are often at the center of controversy.

“We wanted to see if it’s similar, and they also face attacks,” Bouzy said. However, he added that it doesn’t measure up to what Harris is subjected to because the sexist language and blatant use of racist remarks directed at the vice president “is on another level.”

The vice president’s office declined to comment on this story.

The barrage of hate tweets being directed at Harris, and appearing to break Twitter’s rules, could be a preview of what the platform might look like under Elon Musk’s leadership. Human rights advocates and social media experts have warned that Musk’s $44 billion bid to buy Twitter and his pledge to restore “free speech” – so users can say what they want – will lead to the proliferation of racist and sexist language on the platform.

It’s unclear whether the troublesome tweets targeting Harris are part of a coordinated campaign and whether they come from real accounts or fake “bots” accounts that Musk has raised doubts about. Many of the accounts appear to be real individuals with hundreds and in some cases thousands of followers.

Tamer Hassan, co-founder and CEO of HUMAN, a cybersecurity firm that tracks fraudulent bot activity, says the content of the tweets collected in the Bot Sentinel report “is not far from a typical campaign” organized by nefarious actors using bots.

“What we’ve seen over the last 10 years, the evolution of bot activity, is generally in the direction of a very human being,” Hassan said. “We usually see them in the social media world used for amplification.”

Hassan said organizing a campaign to target hateful content to someone like Harris “is so easy and low-cost, pretty much anyone can do it.”

“We are rapidly moving into a world where bots are part of our culture and part of our interactions,” Hassan said.

“Bots are one of the most important threats to modern security, and there is very little policy or practice surrounding their use,” he added.

Tim Perry contributed to this report.

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