Twitter starts tracking phone numbers to prevent its worst users from creating new accounts

Casey Newton Reporting for The Verge:

Weeks after The Verge published internal memos from Twitter CEO Dick Costolo in which he said “we suck at dealing with abuse,” the company is rolling out new tools to reduce harassment on the service. Under the changes, users who receive temporary bans may have to verify an email address or a phone number to resume using Twitter. (Other users can be banned permanently.) Email addresses are relatively easy to obtain, but phone numbers are harder — and by checking phone numbers against a list of banned users, Twitter could be able to keep more abusers and harassers from creating accounts.

Costolo has pledged to further improve abuse reporting tools, and to make it easier for users to filter trolls out of their replies. In the meantime, Twitter says that it’s working harder to ban its worst users. “Overall, we now review five times as many user reports as we did previously, and we have tripled the size of the support team focused on handling abuse reports,” Tina Bhatnagar, vice president of user services, said in a blog post.

Update: After this post was published, we got some questions on how tracking phone numbers will reduce abuse. Twitter does not require new users to provide a phone number when they sign up — and so a user who was banned, and decided to create a new account, could do so even if they had harassed users previously. But if that user began to harass again — as many committed trolls on Twitter do — Twitter can then ask them to verify their email address and phone number, and if it’s on a list of banned accounts, that user could be suspended permanently.

This move doesn’t resolve Twitter’s whack-a-mole troll problem entirely. Among other loopholes, a user asked to provide a phone number the first time could simply abandon his account and start a new one. But the move does add a layer of friction to the lives of the most dedicated trolls, and in that sense it could at least begin to address the issue.

It’s a start and something to slowly build on.