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Video of men reading 'mean tweets' highlights Twitter's harassment problem

Being active on social media is part of a journalist's job description these days. But for women, Twitter in particular can be a toxic experience. The platform has announced several tools to improve the experience, including a new one just this week, but the problem of harassment remains.

Athletics blog Just Not Sports published a video Tuesday titled "#MoreThanMean - Women in Sports 'Face' Harassment." In it, men were recruited to read "mean tweets," like the popular "Jimmy Kimmel Live" recurring segment. Sports reporter Julie DeCaro and Sarah Spain offered their mentions as fodder.

The men quickly learned they were reading the tweets and comments to the journalists who'd been on the receiving end of the messages. The guys visibly squirmed and occasionally apologized for what they were saying. (They were not the same men who had written the tweets.)

"One of the players should beat you to death with their hockey stick," one post read.

"I hope you get raped again," read another.

"Hopefully this skank Julie DeCaro is Bill Cosby's next victim. That would be classic," says  yet another.

A YouTube video from the blog Just Not Sports highlighting harassment on Twitter.

Lindsey Thiry, a sports reporter at The Times, said she's been subjected to similar gender-based insults, though not death threats. She said people insinuate she got her job only because of her looks and suggest she's trading sexual favors for inside information from coaches. Although all sports writers get hate from fans of the opposing teams, she said, male writers don't seem to get the same kind of comments she does.

Mostly, the video brought up two major issues: What we expect of women on the Internet, and whether Twitter will ever take the meaningful steps needed to combat harassment.

Sports writers are not the only women who end up on the receiving end of online harassment. After Anita Sarkeesian kicked off her series on video game tropes, she chronicled what her Twitter timeline looked like for a week. Nintendo employee Allison Rapp was the victim of an ongoing Twitter harassment campaign; Nintendo says it's a complete coincidence that she was let go shortly thereafter. Lindy West has written about feminism for a number of outlets; she has detailed the amount of Internet hate she's received and even confronted a Twitter harasser who had created an account imitating her recently deceased father.

The similarities are clear: Women become targets for writing about traditionally male-dominated fields (sports, video games) and for writing about things some men perceive as threatening (feminism).

In the hours after the video was posted, DeCaro and Spain were both -- of course -- harassed on Twitter about it. A common refrain was, "well, this is part of the job, so you have to deal with it, just get a thicker skin." Another was, "men get harassed online too." Some pointed out that based on Kimmel's many "mean tweets" videos, plenty of famous people seem to deal with Internet cruelty just fine.

A quick rundown of the issues with those arguments, in order: Dealing with people making vulgar insults and violent threats is not, in fact, part of the job description of a writer, and not something anyone should have to put up with at their job.

Men do get harassed online, though a 2014 Pew study found that young women experienced severe types of online harassment at disproportionately high levels. On the Internet, women were nearly four times more likely to be stalked and twice as likely to be sexually harassed. Women and men reported nearly equally (within 1 to 2 percentage points) as likely to experience physical threats, be called offensive names, be purposefully embarrassed, and to be harassed over a sustained period of time. Either way, no one should be expected to put up with it at work.

Famous people don't have to use Twitter for work; reporters do. Celebrities rarely control their own social media accounts and certainly are not expected to check their mentions for tips from readers and potential sources like journalists are. Reading a handful of selected mean tweets on one occasion, for a TV show segment, is different from reading every mean tweet directed at you every day for years.

Twitter has been aware of its reputation for some time. A Google search for "Twitter harassment problem" shows articles dating to 2012 chronicling the problem. Back then, the burgeoning platform vowed to fight abuse. Twitter has introduced blocking, muting and reporting, among other tools. Yet the harassment persists, as one of its software engineers personally learned a couple of months ago.

User growth stagnated for the platform last year, and executives have cycled in and out. On Tuesday, Twitter announced its active used base was growing again, but it missed revenue goals and cut its earnings forecast. On Monday, Twitter put out another safety update: the ability to report multiple tweets at once.

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Reached by email, Twitter spokesperson Nu Wexler highlighted recent improvements to reporting and policies and procedures regarding harassment. Wexler also cited the 2015 fourth-quarter shareholder letter, which included a statement about the company's commitment to fighting abuse.

"Safety continues to be one of our top priorities," Wexler said in his email.

Thiry, our sports writer, said she understands that Twitter can't police every unkind thing people say. But she thinks Twitter hasn't taken actual threats seriously enough:

"When you're worried for your safety, that's a different line."

Say nice things to Jessica Roy on Twitter @jessica_roy.

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