In early November, Twitter introduced a new feature: a mute button. The mute button allows users to mute words, phrases, usernames and even emojis from their notifications, giving users another way to block harassment and Internet trolls. This comes after months of highly publicized online attacks that occurred on Twitter, most notably against comedian and actress Leslie Jones. She was the target of persistent sexist and racist harassment after the release of her movie Ghostbusters, so much so she briefly left Twitter.
The mute button has distinct advantages to battling Internet trolls and their abuse. While the blocking feature of Twitter lets you block certain users from following you and prevents you from seeing their Tweets, it is not very helpful in the case of numerous Twitter attacks. In the case of Leslie Jones, for instance, blogger Milo Yiannopoulos encouraged his followers to harass her, resulting in widespread abuse for Jones. The mute button could have easily prevented Jones from having to see all the insults by muting the words and phrases that frequently come up in the disturbing Tweets.
It’s a good step for Twitter to battle their trolls, especially since they’ve been accused of not moving quickly enough to help with online harassment. The problem Twitter has faced is finding the right balance between protecting victims of online harassment and limiting free speech. This has caused slow moves on Twitter’s part, since the mute button came months after the online attacks on Jones. But Twitter is working on it. Along with the mute button, Twitter now allows other users to report cases of bullying if they see it happening to another user, whereas in the past only the victims could report online harassment.
One of their most controversial moves was banning Yiannopoulos from Twitter for his entire lifetime, which again brought up the debate of free speech vs. harassment prevention. Other than banning Yiannopoulos, however, Twitter has not done anything that would limit free speech. The right to free speech is certainly important, but there is a difference between free speech and hate speech. Encouraging abuse directed at another person, as well as harassing that person yourself, is hate speech. But technically, you can express that opinion freely. Protecting the civil liberty and dignity of the victim without limiting the freedom of the speaker is the brilliance of Twitter’s mute button. Everyone can still Tweet their opinion, even if it is hateful, but these hateful Tweets can be muted to protect the victim. It is why there are no protests over this new feature, unlike the #FreeMilo movement that began when Yiannopoulos was banned.
The problem of online harassment and abuse is not new, and it’s one Twitter has been increasingly aware of, especially after this summer’s situation with Jones and Yiannopoulos. Though it’s taken the company until November to come up with a feature that can help the situation, it’s still better than nothing. Not to mention, there’s no denying the usefulness of the mute button in combating Twitter trolls. It’s a good move on Twitter’s part and it provides hope they will continue taking measures to help victims of online harassment.