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Twitter, Unable to Control Its Worst Elements, Rolls out a Site Redesign

On Monday, Twitter officially launched its updated interface on desktop for the web.

The social media site began testing the new version of its site back in September 2018. The new look better resembles the site's experience on modern smartphones. At the start, the new look was optional, and only available to some. Now, the redesign will be mandatory for Twitter users, disabling their ability to switch to the social network's legacy layout.

This fresh coat of paint arrives on the heels of other updates Twitter has made, like the ability to add a photo or video to a retweet, the option of bookmarking a tweet and, most notably, the doubling of the tweet length character limit to 280.

Twitter's introduction of new features has kept the experience of using the site fresh, but according to many users, the company still has work to do in addressing hate speech and trolling on its platform. "You can't tech your way around racism and harassment," University of Maryland professor and director of UMD's Social Intelligence Lab Jen Golbeck tells Fortune.

"Twitter continues to release new features and designs and I argue that it's not going to win people over to the platform," she says. "The reason: people think Twitter is a nasty dangerous place."

While the social site is one of many that offers an unprecedented level of connection, many of its users also have used Twitter, despite an unprecedented level of abuse that has driven some users to close their accounts.

The reveal of new Twitter features in the face of continued misbehavior from its users have caused people to question Twitter's priorities. One user, for example noted that they would rather have the trolls silenced and reduced bots back when the company first announced the change to 280 characters. They weren't alone. Many rallied around similar tweets questioning Twitter's order of operations.

Still, the social media site has taken some steps forward, in the fight against hate speech and misinformation. In 2016, Twitter added the ability for users to hide specific content from their feed. The company limited online trolls even further in 2018. In an update, the company analyzed tweets for certain behavior to determine which would be more prominently touted and which tweets may be more hidden.

This month, Twitter has put forth a zero-tolerance policy against tweets that discriminate on the basis of religion. In a July blog post, the company revealed that reporting a tweet that dehumanizes a religious group would result in Twitter requiring the user to delete their tweet. Furthermore, in a 2019 report, the company touted receiving 16% fewer abuse reports from users being harassed by stranger accounts and a 60% faster abuse response time, by the company's measure.

But there's still work to be done. Traditionally, Twitter has flip-flopped on its fake news stance if the user is popular enough. Alex Jones, host of the conspiracy theory show Info Wars, experienced this first hand. Twitter first supported Jones ability to remain on the site, doubled-down on the position, and then later banned both Jones and his show from having accounts on the site

More recently, the company has taken a hands-off role with President Trump's recent racist tweets towards congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib. Without naming the public officials, Trump noted that "'progressive' democrat congresswomen" could go back to where they came from if they have thoughts on how government should be run. While the public officials are all people of color, all but Omar are born in the United States. Trump's racist rhetoric still resides on the site.

In a move to address Trump's brazen tweeting habits, the company noted that it would begin flagging tweets that are against site guidelines but are of legitimate interest to the public. At the time of this writing, Trump's tweet is without said flag.

It may be near impossible for Twitter to strike the right balance between issuing updates that make the service more fun to use and updates that reduce abuse, making the service usable for women and people of color. Golbeck notes that while websites require updates, it's important to keep things in perspective. "I'm wary of criticizing this new design itself; platforms need to update and some of these features are good and useful," she says.

"However a lot of social media companies need to understand that they're not just tech companies—they're also social platforms with social problems that require proper insight and solutions," she adds. "Until they start enforcing their policies in a consistent way, I expect the situation will stay the same."

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