Platform Innovation // Blog

Why Too Many Platforms Are Fooled by the Value of Trolls

Another week, another effort by Twitter to combat trolling and harassment on its platform.

Three years after then-CEO Dick Costolo wrote an internal memo, promptly leaked to the press, that admitted that Twitter had a problem with handling harassment and abuse, the company continues to struggle in its efforts to combat trolls.

This week Twitter announced its latest spate of anti-harassment features, including measures to prevent the creation of spam accounts by banned users and a feature that minimizes abusive tweets, essentially removing them from view unless a user deliberately clicks on them. This latter feature is one that has been used by Internet forums, including Reddit, for years, so it’s a bit curious that it took Twitter this long to release such a simple tweak.

In context of Twitter’s other problems, however, the almost deliberate slowness makes a bit of sense. Twitter has struggled to maintain its once-stellar growth rate, with the platform’s network even shrinking, as Twitter announced it had in its quarterly announcement at the beginning of last year.

While Twitter’s problems with harassment are harder to measure, Twitter’s growth rate is simple arithmetic. For a company starved for new users, the thought of losing a lot of existing ones, many of whom are likely very active (as trolls often are), is probably not easy to stomach.

Does this mean that Twitter has deliberately ignored its abuse problem?

Probably not, but it likely is reluctant to act too quickly if those efforts might also hurt its topline number of active users.

In the long run, Twitter will be better off if it minimizes trolling and improves the quality of its network. However, in the short run, investors likely won’t care if Twitter improves in combatting harassment if it means growth slows or goes negative. It’s very obvious which one of those two items would make a headline and which would have the biggest short-term impact on its stock price.

Yet, as venture capitalist and former Googler Hunter Walk wrote this week, “trolls and harassment drive short-term engagement even though they’re long-term poison.” They improve topline metrics in the short term, but harm the platform in the long term by driving away high-quality users and giving the platform a negative reputation that hurts its future growth.

Twitter is not extraordinary in this regard. Other platforms have had similarly long-standing issues with low quality or “bad” content and inventory. Or as it was more recently called on Facebook, “fake news.” It wasn’t until public outcry forced Mark Zuckerberg’s hand that Facebook started to take the phenomenon of fake news seriously.

While Facebook initially claimed that only a small percentage of the stories shared on its platform constituted fake news, many of these stories go viral and get hundreds of thousands or even millions of shares, likes and comments.

For Facebook, as with Twitter, this “bad” content drives short-term engagement and, just as importantly, advertising dollars. If producers are paying to advertise fake news, that’s still money in Facebook’s pocket. Likewise, if more users are engaged by fake news and spending more time on the platform, that gives Facebook more opportunities to show them ads.

In the long term, big-spending advertisers likely won’t want to see their products mixed in with fake news and users might lose trust in the platform if they’re constantly served fake stories without any context. Yet, as with Twitter, it’s easy to see why Facebook would be slow to act.

So too with Alibaba, which has long had a problem with counterfeit goods, primarily on its Taobao marketplace.

It wasn’t until Alibaba went public in 2014 that many U.S. companies started to really force the issue. Like Twitter and Facebook, Alibaba was rather slow to act. So slow that, in December of that year, Taobao was added back to a list of notorious counterfeit enablers by the U.S. Office of the Trade Representative, a list that also features torrent sites such as The Pirate Bay.

Taobao was originally added to the USTR list in 2011 and then removed in 2012 after making some strides in combatting counterfeit goods on its site. In spite of Alibaba’s previous progress on the issue, the problem persists at scale today and the company has known about it for years.

Rather than directly address the problem, Alibaba has tried to sidestep the issue, much as Facebook initially attempted to do with the fake news controversy.

Alibaba has walled-off a Chinese version of Taobao that is only accessible when inside China. This part of Taobao doesn’t show up when searched on the platform outside of China. If one looks on Taobao when in the U.S., one is significatly less likely to find counterfeit goods on the platform. Yet, according to many reports, the Chinese version of the site is still rife with fakes. One study purports that as many as 90% of the New Balance listings on Taobao are counterfeit goods.

Alibaba benefits from fake goods the same way Facebook did from fake news. In the short term, fake goods sold on Taobao still make money for the platform and help its topline numbers in quarterly reports. However, in the long term, Alibaba will continue to struggle to expand overseas and into new markets if it can’t shake its toxic reputation as a marketplace for counterfeit goods.

Whether it’s fake goods, fake news, or trolls, these kinds of problems are ones that all platforms have to deal with. Ultimately, it often comes down to a tradeoff between prioritizing quality or prioritizing growth. There is no one right answer, but many platforms too often prioritize the latter at the expense of the former.

It’s not to say that all of these platforms are deliberately ignoring their problems to improve superficial growth. Rather, the people working for them may be well-intentioned but optimizing for the wrong metrics.

After all, the short-term effects of this decision are easy to see – higher engagement, more revenue, and such – while the long-term effects are harder to quantify and may not have a large impact anytime soon.

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