In a remarkable meta-commentary on Twitter’s Report Abuse system, the parody account @TrustySupport, which mocks Twitter for failing to suspend harassing accounts, was, uh, suspended.
So what happened here? @TrustySupport’s account was unsuspended after a few hours, leading me to speculate at the time that it had been a mistake. But after talking to both the minds behind @TrustySupport and to Twitter, it turns out it wasn’t a mistake at all: @TrustySupport was suspended for using Twitter trademarks.
The real story behind @TrustySupport’s suspension is an illuminating glimpse into the calculations and processes that go into penalizing users for violating Twitter’s rules. Neither side was mistaken or confused about what was going on. In fact, both @TrustySupport and Twitter had carefully assessed the situation and scrutinized the rules—only to conclude completely different things about what was or wasn’t allowed.
This story also raises some questions about resource allocation and corporate priorities at Twitter. It’s a little weird that a parody account, whose chief criticism of Twitter is that it doesn’t do enough about harassment, was shut down because of trademark enforcement. And it’s even weirder to find out that the decision was made with apparent care and actual internal discussion at the company.
More than one person is behind the @TrustySupport account, which formerly boasted the display title “Twítter Support.” Frustrated with their own personal interactions with Twitter Support, they decided to lampoon the absurdities of the Report Abuse system. It turned out they weren’t alone in their frustrations—some of their tweets are very popular, clearly resonating with many other users on the platform.
“We sincerely hope that by using satire we can draw attention to this problem,” the people behind @TrustySupport told me in an email. “Of course it's a structural social issue, but it's also a technical one—as anyone who has tried to use Twitter's Abuse Reporting system will tell you. We're hearing from hundreds of users who are grateful both for the satire and for a chance to laugh in the midst of the often crippling abuse they're suffering on Twitter.”
For @TrustySupport, Twitter’s apparent lack of responsiveness to abuse is baffling, particularly given how egregious some of it is. @TrustySupport pointed out one specific example to me, where a woman is being continually targeted with racism and violent threats “because she posted photos of her son, who is black.” The @TrustySupport account frequently tweets about hate speech and racism on the platform.
The suspension on Wednesday wasn’t the first time that @TrustySupport had heard from Twitter. The company was concerned that @TrustySupport was using its trademarks, and in doing so, was going to confuse users. For one thing, the account was using the Twitter bird logo as an avatar. For another thing, their display name looked like “Twitter Support”—though the “i” had been replaced with a different character, since the Twitter interface doesn’t allow people to use “twitter” in their display names.
“If they don't like those alternate characters, we think they should update their software although we'd rather they spend the time on fixing the abuse system,” @TrustySupport said to me.
The first thing that Twitter did was to lock the account—a lower-level penalty that doesn’t rise to suspension. In many cases, the user is notified of some violation, and they are told that to continue to use their account, they need to delete a problem tweet.
In @TrustySupport’s case, they weren’t asked to do anything specifically. “They only contacted us in that a message popped up on the screen letting us know that they had removed the trademarked image—this resulted in the profile image field returning to default ‘egg’ so we uploaded a new image, the same one we have currently,” they told me in an email.
In this first interaction, Twitter asked @TrustySupport to change the account to comply with their parody policy. “So, we read the policy carefully and to comply we removed all trademarked images as well as references to Twitter in the Bio, location, and web site, and ensured the Bio used the word parody.”
From Twitter’s point of view, the company was trying to work with @TrustySupport, coaching them into complying with policy without actually silencing the account, let alone altering the content of their tweets. Twitter told me that the company has no problem with being lampooned, they just don’t want their users to be confused.
From @TrustySupport’s perspective, the company was burning time and resources on dealing with a non-problem, even as Twitter failed to address death threats and other intense harassment. In the experience of the people behind @TrustySupport, harassers will often make “parody” accounts of ordinary individuals. When reported, Twitter “almost always replies saying the impersonation is not a violation because it's parody. This is what inspired our own parody. We wonder why harassers are being allowed to use parody as a cloak for abuse.”
Sometime on Wednesday, @TrustySupport changed their display name to “Trusty Support.” Their avatar was now a drawing of a dead bird, with question marks coming out of it. Their bio was clearly marked as parody.
Since their display name didn’t say “Twitter,” @TrustySupport figured that was fine. But for Twitter, the inclusion of the word “Support” looked like defiance. From the company’s perspective, @TrustySupport wasn’t complying with parody policy, even though Twitter had pushed them to do so. Twitter notified @TrustySupport of their suspension at 11:41 AM Pacific Time. By 2:05 PM, the account was unsuspended.
I pointed out to Twitter that @TrustySupport’s display name is still “Trusty Support”—they haven’t changed anything since their suspension. Did that mean that Wednesday’s suspension was a mistake?
According to Twitter, it wasn’t. It was an intentional decision, based on a number of criteria. But after some internal discussion, the company decided to reverse their stance. @TrustySupport is treading in a gray area, and Twitter has decided to let them be.
@TrustySupport is still indignant over the whole affair. The idea that Twitter would devote so much time to dealing with them, but not with genuine harassment, is, in their eyes, absurd.
To be fair, none of this means that Twitter is spending more time and money policing trademark infringement than they are in dealing with harassment. Twitter’s spotty record with harassment is just naturally going to draw more attention than a spotty record with corporate impersonations.
But that’s no comfort to @TrustySupport, who pointed out to me multiple accounts that use Twitter trademarks, including @BadTwitAccounts, which appears to exist just “to direct others to harass.”
Someone once told me this about abuse reporting systems in general: even if a platform makes the right call 99% of the time, a 1% failure rate still results in real human pain and suffering.
Who knows what Twitter’s success or failure rate on harassment is like right now? It’s possible that even with its current (terrible) reputation, they are, statistically, mostly doing right by their users. The problem is that even if Twitter is doing the right thing most of the time, there will be thousands of instances where they aren’t.
What’s poignant about the @TrustySupport story is that this little saga might be the most extensive dialogue that any of the people behind the account have had with Twitter thus far. When your abuse reports are constantly bounced back with canned explanations, the actual people handling your abuse reports begin to seem like distant, uncaring automatons that are rubber stamping all your pleas for help with DENIED, DENIED, DENIED.
The @TrustySupport suspension wasn’t a thoughtless rubber stamp. But somehow that feels worse. Yes, there are real people who are actually thinking, feeling, and weighing their options behind the scenes at Twitter. It’s just a pity that it took a trademark/impersonation dispute over a Twitter parody account to show it.