Twitter Direct Messages Controversy

New Twitter feature opening the Floodgates for Unwanted Communications

In the last 24 hours, Twitter have rolled out a potentially controversial new feature to its 288 million users amidst a rough few months of criticism in light of controversies such as the #gamergate phenomenon and Twitter CEO’s leaked memo stating; ”We suck at dealing with abuse”.

Twitter HQ: Larry water bottles

"Taking public Twitter conversations private"

In the latest “upgrade” as many reviewers are hesitantly referring to it as, Twitter users can send and receive direct messages to -anyone- on the network. Granted, this new feature is in line with Twitter’s constant efforts to build upon instantaneous and multi-level communication, in competition with the more active instant messaging of its competitors Facebook messenger and Whatsapp, but one must question; what effect will “taking public twitter conversations private” have on those suffering online harassment, Cyberbullying, extortion, Catphishing and more online crimes?


This announcement comes very shortly after Twitter’s general counsel, Vijaya Gadde, wrote an Open Letter to the Washington Post, in which she addressed the current issues of balancing security and safety with free speech, acknowledging; “[E]ven when we have recognized that harassment is taking place, our response times have been inexcusably slow and the substance of our responses too meager”.


In what should have been an upgrade presumably strongly in favor of victims of abuse and protection of minors and vulnerable users, these new features are seemingly more suited to say a business replying to a complaint by a customer, a journalist receiving a tip, or as Twitter stated themselves; “taking public Twitter conversations private” - and providing another pathway of communication for those misusing the service and unwanted communication for victims of Cybercrime.

 The breakdown of features - what does this mean for unwanted communication?

A number of issues are, nonetheless, inherent in this new feature, that evidently does not take into accounts the needs and privacy of victims of Twitter abuse:


  • A setting allows you to receive messages from anyone and you to reply to anyone sending you direct messages - therefore once one message is sent, the communication floodgates are open.
  • Twitter assumes want of communication with other users - to the extent that should you choose to unfollow an individual in the instance of a Twitter relationship turned nasty, prior DM history and interaction is still logged, and they can still send you messages in line with the new system.
  • This is the most problematic element as, not only is this presumed consent infringing on ones privacy; the only way to resolve and block unwanted communication from a user is to delete -all- previous DMs and interaction.


Therefore if incriminating messages are sent to you, even if you have actively attempted to unfollow your abuser and break contact, they can still harass and plague a victim now privately - as well as publicly. Unless you delete all history of DM conversations with an individual, in which instance all records and evidence of abuse will be erased,  you have no other instantaneous blocking ability. What does that mean for evidence creation and preservation?


Twitter have stated that; “We have lots more in the works to improve Direct Messages on Twitter, so that the private side of Twitter is just as fulfilling as the public side" and provide guidelines on use and settings of this new feature. In the company’s defence, there is an opt-in/ opt-out service and which can be manually enabled and changed by users.

Despite Twitter's transparency regarding their shortcomings in dealing with Doxxing, trolls and other forms of abuse, this is a new form of nonconsensual access to user's accounts and communication line. (In its defence, this can be reversed by outright blocking of a malicious user). The key issue we find with the new system is the current solution of blocking unwanted communication by deleting your entire DM history with that user. This may create long-term issues in record retention, and place a victim of unwanted communication in a tricky situation.


As with all updates, Twitter will surely monitor these new features and the effects, benefits and pitfalls are yet to be seen.

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