By Yoree Koh
Read the full article on Wall Street Journal’s Digits Blog
TwitterTWTR -2.37% has long let its users speak their minds on its service, often calling itself the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party.”
So one organization is taking it into its own hands to police certain “hate words” on the social network.
Last week, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation began an anti-homophobia campaign to scold Twitter users who use words like “fag” and “gay” in a negative way. When those words are used, the AHF, under the Twitter handle @h8fulwordskill, sends a response telling the user to be more thoughtful. The campaign’s objective is to combat hate speech on Twitter.
The response has been mixed. Some users have fired back. In one instance, a user called the account “queer.” In another, a Twitter user replied, “Stop lecturing people. Tolerance is a two-way street.” Briabe Mobile, the Los Angeles multicultural mobile advertising firm that developed the monitoring tool, said some offensive tweets were subsequently deleted.
Briabe uses a monitoring tool usually reserved for big brands such as Home Depot to measure a social media campaign’s reach and impact. For the AHF, the tool identifies when certain keywords are being used on Twitter and sends a tweet back to the user. Cashmere Agency, the creative advertising agency behind the campaign, said this is the first time the technology is being used to promote a social cause.
To avoid running afoul of Twitter’s usage rules, the account doesn’t respond to every occurrence. Instead, it weighs the content of the tweet, how frequently the user tweets and how many followers they may have, targeting those that are most active with bigger networks to ensure wider reach. Since Feb. 24, it has sent 411 tweets in response to identified targets.
That is far fewer than the 173,000 instances that Briabe said it identified where tweets used homophobic language in a hateful manner, with a particular emphasis on negative tweets about Michael Sam, the defensive lineman from the University of Missouri who this year is expected to become the first publicly gay player in the National Football League. Sam participated in the annual N.F.L combine last week, sparking a raft of comments on Twitter in connection to his sexual orientation.
Twitter declined to comment, saying it doesn’t comment on the activity of individual accounts.
“The fact is that Twitter is a public forum,” said Ryan Ford, vice president of Cashmere Agency. “We all use Twitter and we all can have our say in that public forum. We thought it was important to not necessarily say, ‘Hey it’s free speech–you can’t say those types of things,’ but to interject a different perspective into that conversation.”
There are few things that you cannot say on Twitter. So It is unsurprising that the public messaging service has become a hive of the good, bad and caustically ugly. Twitter doesn’t have any rules prohibiting hate speech. Tweets that contain “specific threats of violence against others” aren’t allowed, but must be flagged to the company for review before the accounts are suspended.
Ford says the agency doesn’t have any illusions about how one tweet will change someone’s mind. One hope is that the tweet will raise awareness among the user’s follower base who might see the exchange.
In its replies to users, the tweet includes a link to the AHF’s anti-homophobia campaign website. Cashmere said the link has been clicked more than 1,700 times since last Monday. The agency, which specializes in marketing to multicultural millenials, also enlisted celebrities such as television personality Nick Cannon and former NFL player Shawne Merriman to tweet the link and campaign, for which the men were compensated.