Twitter asks for public’s help to measure how toxic it is

 After years of withering criticism over the sludge of toxic interactions on its platform, Twitter has put out a call for outside experts to measure the health of public conversation there, a new effort to restore civil debate.

“We’re committing Twitter to help increase the collective health, openness, and civility of public conversation, and to hold ourselves publicly accountable towards progress,” chief executive officer Jack Dorsey said Thursday.

The announcement, made via Twitter and a company blog post, is a clear acknowledgment by Twitter that interventions to crack down on abuse and hate speech haven’t proven effective in combating troll armies, misinformation and “increasingly divisive echo chambers” that have roiled the platform, in Dorsey’s words.

Now Twitter’s CEO says he’s determined to build “a systemic framework to help encourage more healthy debate, conversations, and critical thinking.”

Health, according to the company, will be established as a new measure of Twitter’s performance.

Dorsey’s remarks echo concerns raised by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who pledged to turn his full attention to fixing the giant social network amid revelations that the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency spread divisive messages to influence political debate and meddle in the 2016 presidential U.S. election.

Twitter has pledged time and again to kick bad behavior to the curb. This marks the first time that Twitter has asked for the public’s help. Pressure has been building on Twitter and its CEO as the waves of rancor and disinformation flowing through the service have been blamed for punching holes in the social fabric.

Founded on the ideals of openness and free speech, Twitter has gained a nasty reputation for turning a blind eye to abuse and harassment.

People don’t have to use their real names on Twitter. And with that anonymity has come racist, sexist and anti-Semitic taunts and attacks, as well as full-fledged campaigns from trolls, individuals or groups whose primary intent is to sow discord on social media platforms. Ineffective efforts to police that behavior and increase safety for Twitter’s 330 million users have driven some users, including prominent ones, from the platform.

“We aren’t proud of how people have taken advantage of our service, or our inability to address it fast enough,” Dorsey said. “While working to fix it, we’ve been accused of apathy, censorship, political bias, and optimizing for our business and share price instead of the concerns of society. This is not who we are, or who we ever want to be.”

Twitter is accepting proposals until April 13. As a guide, the company cited work by nonprofit Cortico, an effort by Deb Roy of the Laboratory for Social Machines at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to track the health of public conversation across traditional and new media platforms such as social media and talk radio.

Outside experts tapped to work with Twitter will receive funding for research and public data access. The company says it will announce the first projects in July.

“I think Twitter is ramping up their PR strategy,” says Jennifer Grygiel, a professor who studies social media at Syracuse University. “Announcements and partnerships like this make it sound like there will be big changes coming soon, but we should wait for results.”