Banning and suspending users is problematic

Twitter is wrongly censoring certain swear words in order to prevent potential abuse

Twitter helps disseminate an idea quickly and provides users with a large audience to convey their messages to, no matter how many followers or important figures follow them. Although this is great when it comes to promoting an event or a social cause close to your heart, it can also have negative outcomes. As we have seen, social media platforms can lead to abuse and the spread of hateful messages. It might be easier to share your well-intentioned ideas, but it’s also easier to share ill-intentioned ones.

Twitter has been criticized by the public for inefficiently dealing with “trolls”—people who spread hateful comments to start fights. But lately, Twitter is using a new system. According to the Washington Post, instead of reviewing content that was signalled as abusive, Twitter detects certain keywords that, if used, will cause the platform to mute users for 12 hours. Muting is not the same as banning. You can still use your account, but if you mention someone who doesn’t follow you, the mentioned account won’t be notified about the tweet. And if someone retweets from the punished account, only those following the punished account will be able to see the retweet.

While this mute feature is not as drastic as a ban, I still find it highly problematic. What exactly is considered abusive speech? Twitter is a bit vague about this. The message Twitter issues when an account gets muted is: “We’ve temporarily limited some of your account features […] We’ve detected some potentially abusive behaviour from your account, so only your followers can see your activity on Twitter for the amount of time shown below.”

One user, Victoria Fierce, was recently muted for tweeting: “Fuck you, I gotta piss, and you’re putting me—an American—in danger of assault by your white supremacist brothers,’’ to Vice President Mike Pence. Twitter didn’t give a specific explanation for why she was muted—it might have been her use of the F-word or even the phrase “white supremacist.” It’s incredibly ambiguous. I’m assuming she was muted because of her swearing. While it’s not the most elegant way to speak, swearing has its purpose when trying to show outrage or convey emotion toward a certain topic. In my opinion, swearing, while being shocking, is a useful tool and should not be censored just to prevent potential harassment.

Using algorithms to punish users, rather than a human who can understand context, is problematic. Everything has context, and words that generally shouldn’t be used might be acceptable depending on the user’s intention. For example, how does a bot designed to oversee abusive tweets detect sarcasm, which is all about context? In its attempt to prevent abuse, Twitter may be silencing people who shouldn’t be silenced. That is terrifying, and we should be careful not to confuse “preventing hate speech” with “preventing people from using certain keywords.” I also find the 12-hour mute policy problematic. Since it’s done automatically, your ability to communicate with a larger audience is being restricted without understanding exactly what you did wrong. Twelve hours in today’s intense information-sharing cycle is a long time.

Some Twitter users have also pointed out that it seems the ban is mostly being used against people who tweet at a verified account. If this is actually the case, it causes another problem. Twitter is protecting public figures who can rely on a strong community of followers to help them fight the abuse. Meanwhile, small users with few followers or little influence become victims of abuse and are not prioritized by this new preventative system.

Since Twitter is its own entity, one could argue the platform has the right to put all the restrictions it wants on users. Yet as a major communication tool, I think it’s Twitter’s responsibility to make sure users’ right to free speech is being respected. I don’t wish for anyone to be the target of abuse on social media, but I think preventing innocent people from using certain words can fall into the category of censorship—which is a whole other serious action that cannot be accepted.

Graphic by Alexa Hawksworth


Does Concordia need a fall reading week?

Time off during the fall semester could help students with their workload and mental health

The midterm break has come and gone. Some of us had a rather productive week, others feel rested, and some are now less motivated to go to class, having tasted the joy of a break. While we may have varying opinions about the purpose of reading week, it seems odd that it only happens in one of two semesters. Where is the fall semester’s reading week?

Although it doesn’t exist at Concordia, some university students in Montreal do have a fall break. For example, a few faculties at the Université de Montréal offer students a chance in the fall to catch up on their homework and relax. So why aren’t Concordia students given this opportunity?

It is true that implementing an additional break in the academic calendar would come with potential downsides. Those school days would not just disappear; the semester would have to start earlier or finish later in order to maintain its current 13 weeks. Starting before Labour Day could be a problem though, because some students would have to pay an extra month of rent if the semester started at the end of August instead of the beginning of September.

Extending the semester in December isn’t ideal either. This would shorten the holiday break, which is an important time to spend with family and on ourselves. Many students have family outside of Montreal, making it hard enough already for them to see their loved ones during the school year.

Another solution would be to shorten the examination period, potentially by having more exams on the weekend. Personally, I don’t have a problem with this. The longer examination period schedules exams on consecutive days for some students anyway.

Although these solutions all have their costs, I think they are worth it if a break could help students’ mental health. Research conducted at McMaster University in Ontario and published in 2017 hinted at this benefit.

The study tested the saliva of participants from two universities—one with a reading week and one without—to determine stress levels. Participants also filled out a questionnaire, which indicated that the numbers of stressors in a student’s life after the reading week diminished. An analysis of the hormones in participants’ saliva also indicated higher levels of stress in the students who didn’t have a reading week.

However, the group of participants who had a reading week scored higher on the Perceived Stress Scale, a psychological instrument used to measure stress, after their break. This means they were more stressed than before the break. Although this might seem to contradict the benefits of having a reading week, it’s important to note that the type of stress was different. According to the study, before the break, the highest reported stressors were “worried about the future,” “sitting through a boring class’’ and ‘’having too little sleep.” After the break, students were more concerned about deadlines, projects and a difficult upcoming week.

The study does not provide information about the group that did not have a reading week. Nonetheless, most of these findings seem to indicate that students without a reading week do experience more stress than the other group, since their saliva was tested and indicated higher stress levels. Mental health aside, a reading week is also a great opportunity to catch up on your homework. If you are like me and switched classes or registered for courses at the last minute, you might have welcomed that break with open arms, or wish you’d had one in the fall.

Graphic by Zeze Le Lin

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