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20 May 2015updated 21 May 2015 9:53am

Twitter allows promoted tweet urging transgender people to kill themselves

The tweet, which purported to be from a prominent feminist, was transphobic - and potentially libellous. Why was it allowed to be promoted on to timelines?

By Jonn Elledge

Well, this is bad. This is very, very bad indeed.

This is so bad, in fact, that we’re going to slap a content warning on this thing. Coming up below is a screen shot of a Tweet that is violently transphobic, and could be seriously upsetting to those who suffer from mental health problems, too. 

So, here goes.

Twitter this afternoon is positively awash in complaints about the fact that the social network placed the following, unsolicited, into the timelines of many users.

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Caitlin Roper is an Australian feminist. To be absolutely clear, this message was not sent by her, but by someone impersonating her.

This raises two uncomfortable questions for Twitter. First, how was a tweet using slurs and a phrase like “commit suicide now” not picked up by Twitter before it was promoted into hundreds of timelines?

Second, what are the repercussions from the impersonation of Roper, who has arguably been libelled – as many people will have seen her name and photograph and assumed the tweet came from her?

The fake Roper account has now been suspended – but before that happened, it had been used to send all sorts of misogynistic Tweets. (The person behind it was very obviously a man, and not a happy one.) The goal here was not simply to communicate unpleasant views: it was to discredit Roper, and the views she holds, in the process.

This sort of thing has happened before: consider this Gizmodo story, about a tweet sent by someone impersonating the Australian writer Josh Bornstein. That Tweet purported to be Islamophobic, but was very obviously anti-semitic too.

Why is nobody at Twitter screening promoting tweets?

We appreciate that the social network needs to make money, and that allowing brands to pay to promote tweets to particular groups of users is going to be key to that. But is it really beyond the wit of man to look at tweets before sending them out into people’s timelines? Or at the very least, to filter out those which contain certain words?

Twitter reacted quickly here: the fake Caitlin Roper account was suspended within minutes of the outrage kicking off. But if it doesn’t rethink its processes, something like this will happen again.