Exclusive: Twitter removes suicide prevention feature, says revamp is underway

Dec 23 (Reuters) – Twitter Inc has in the past few days removed a feature that promoted suicide prevention hotlines and other safety resources to users looking for certain content, two people familiar with the matter said, saying the feature Ordered by new owner Elon Musk.

After the story was published, Twitter’s head of trust and safety Ella Irwin told Reuters in an email, “We’re always fixing and improving our tips. They were just temporarily removed while we were doing so.”

“We expect them to return to normal next week,” she said.

The removal of a feature called #ThereIsHelp has not been previously reported. It shows support groups related to mental health, HIV, vaccines, child sexual exploitation, COVID-19, gender-based violence, natural disasters and free speech at the top of specific search contacts in many countries.

Its removal has led to growing concerns about the well-being of vulnerable users on Twitter. Musk has said that impressions, or views, of harmful content are declining since he took office in October, and tweeted a graph showing the decline, even as researchers and civil rights groups have tracked racist and other hateful content tweets have increased.

In part due to pressure from consumer safety groups, Internet services including Twitter, Google and Facebook have for years tried to direct users to prominent resource providers such as government hotlines when they suspect someone may be in danger.

Twitter’s Owen said in her email, “Google does handle these issues really well in their search results, and (we) are actually mirroring some of their approach with the changes we’re making. “

She added, “We know these tips are useful in many situations and just want to make sure they work and continue to be relevant.”

Eirliani Abdul Rahman, who worked on the recently defunct Twitter content advisory group, said the disappearance of #ThereIsHelp is “extremely disturbing and deeply troubling”.

Even if it’s only temporarily removed to make way for improvements, “often you’re working on it at the same time, rather than removing it,” she said.

Washington-based AIDS United, promoted in #ThereIsHelp, and iLaw, a Thai group mentioned for its support of free speech, both told Reuters on Friday that they were surprised by the feature’s disappearance.

A page linked to by the Twitter feature was attracting about 70 views a day until Dec. 12, AIDS United said. 18. Since then, it has drawn a total of 14 views.

Damar Juniarto, executive director of Twitter partner Southeast Asia Free Speech Network, tweeted about the missing feature on Friday and said the social media service’s “stupidity” may have caused his organization to drop it.

The sources with knowledge of Musk’s decision to order the removal of the feature declined to be named because they feared retaliation. One said millions of people had encountered the #ThereIsHelp message.

Twitter rolled out tips about five years ago, some of which are already available in more than 30 countries, according to a company tweet. In a blog post about the feature, Twitter has said it has a responsibility to ensure users can “access and receive support from our service when they need it most.”

Tips that showed up in search results a few days ago were no longer visible by Thursday, said Alex Goldenberg, chief intelligence analyst for the nonprofit Cyber ​​Contagion Institute.

A study he and his colleagues published in August found that monthly mentions of some self-harm-related terms on Twitter have increased more than 500 percent from the previous year, and that younger users are especially vulnerable when exposed to such content.

“It would be very dangerous if this decision were to symbolize a policy change where they no longer take these issues seriously,” Goldenberg said. “It runs counter to Musk’s previous commitment to prioritizing children’s safety.”

Musk has said he wants to crack down on child sexual abuse content on Twitter and has criticized the previous owner’s handling of the issue. But he has already laid off much of the team that handled potentially objectionable material.

Reporting by Paresh Dave, Fanny Potkin and Sheila Dang; Editing by Kenneth Li and Daniel Wallis

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

paresh dev

Thomson Reuters

Technology reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area covering Google and other parts of Alphabet Inc. Joined Reuters in 2017 after four years at the Los Angeles Times focusing on the local tech industry.

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