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Leslie Jones of 'Ghostbusters' Highlights Twitter's Trolling Problem (TWTR)

John Divine

"Ghostbusters" star and "SNL" member Leslie Jones abandoned Twitter (TWTR) this week, highlighting one of the most glaring issues stifling the social network's growth. After receiving a barrage of hateful, sexist and racist tweets, Jones repeatedly appealed to Twitter itself to step in and end the incendiary slurs and bullying.

But the nasty tweets kept coming, and, disappointed by Twitter's inability to control the vitriol of its own users, Jones announced she was leaving Twitter on Monday night.

Meanwhile, while celebrities like Jones leave the platform in disgust, TWTR stock is in the dumps. In the last year alone, it's lost nearly 50 percent of its value as user growth has hit a wall, revenue growth dramatically slowed, and honest-to-goodness profitability remains painfully elusive.

The San Francisco, California-based social network saw monthly active users (MAUs) grow at a year-over-year rate of just 3 percent -- from 302 million a year before to 310 million -- in the most recent quarter.

Facebook (FB), by contrast, despite having more than five times as many users as Twitter, grew MAUs 15 percent to 1.65 billion. Translation: Facebook is five times bigger, but growing five times faster.

It's little wonder that while TWTR lost about half its value over the last year, FB stock rallied 24 percent higher.

It's not always possible to indict one thing as the cause of a stock's meltdown, but in the case of TWTR, the constant stream of hatred and aggression by its users is a serious problem. So serious that it's very likely the prevalence of Twitter "trolls" -- users who provoke and incite by directing personally offensive messages at others -- is a core catalyst behind Twitter's fall from glory.

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(Ghost)busting bigotry. "Twitter I understand you got free speech I get it," Jones said in a series of tweets before ditching the platform. "But there has to be some guidelines when you let (it) spread like that. You can see on the profiles that some of these people are crazy sick. It's not enough to freeze acct. They should be reported."

And in her final tweet: "I leave Twitter tonight with tears and a very sad heart. All this cause I did a movie."

Twitter did end up taking action against one of the apparent ringleaders in the online bullying of Jones, banning Milo Yiannopoulos, a technology editor for Breitbart, who allegedly helped direct the maelstrom of hurtful comments at Jones.

But how can a system like that ever really be effective or efficient? There are currently 310 million Twitter users, and banned users can just re-create new accounts under fake names.

That, says Matt Hames, communications strategist at Colgate University, is simultaneously Twitter's greatest asset and its Achilles' heel.

A tricky gambit. "The issue is anonymity. While anonymity was imperative for things like the Arab spring, it's troubling for advertisers and brands. As Reddit and 4chan show, the problem with anonymity is content. On Facebook, your name and history is next to your post. On Twitter and Reddit, it isn't," Hames says.

Hames sees it as a straightforward trade-off. If Twitter keeps allowing anonymous users it will have to deal with the inevitable fountain of hate speech and harassment that follows -- but will still remain an agent of social change since oppressive governments won't be able to track dissidents.

On the other hand, if TWTR decides to hold users more accountable for their actions, it can do so by making them use their real names. That would dramatically decrease trolling but would cripple Twitter's ability to affect global social change.

According to Richard Laermer, author of the book "Trendspotting: Think Forward, Get Ahead, Cash in on the Future," Twitter seems to have made its choice.

"Twitter has done nothing to stop trolls or bots or even shaming/hateful speech of any kind. It's almost as if this is a 'set it and forget it' company and I don't see anything happening soon to stop these actions," Laermer says.

Perhaps one of the reasons Twitter hasn't chosen to do away with anonymity -- aside from the social change concept -- is that a meaningful percentage of Twitter users are fake. No one knows exactly how many are controlled by "bots" and not actual humans, but fivethirtyeight.com recently reported that an estimated 8 percent of Donald Trump's followers weren't real.

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If even 4 percent of users were fake, and Twitter did away with the whole anonymity aspect, Twitter users would actually fall year over year, and there's little doubt Wall Street would interpret that as a major red flag for TWTR stock.

Twitter's biggest problem is toeing the line between being a haven for free speech and openness and creating a safe environment where users feel comfortable putting themselves out there online.

It has not achieved the latter.

In March, Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) AI chatbot Tay was famously taken offline after spending less than 24 hours on Twitter because it "learned" to spew hate speech from interacting with other users. When celebrities like Jones are leaving Twitter altogether and even machines are tweeting racist and sexist epithets, it should be clear that Twitter trolling has gotten out of control.

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It's a battle of values for Twitter itself -- and with user growth and engagement on the decline, it's an increasingly financial problem for TWTR stock owners.



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