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How Twitter's new 'fleets' feature could open the door to invisible harassment campaigns

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On Tuesday, Twitter began to roll out "fleets" — ephemeral, story-like posts that last for only 24 hours — to its global userbase. The feature, which is reminiscent of Snapchat and Instagram stories and allows users to post text, images, videos, and tweets, was first announced and tested in various global markets earlier this year. Now, its general rollout has sparked a wave of reactions, ranging from remarks on its name, which is similar to that of an enema brand, to inevitable Snapchat comparisons.

Users were also quick to remark, however, that Twitter doesn't appear to notify users when another person reposts one of their tweets in a fleet. Sharing tweets as fleets is a simple process, whether you're promoting one of your own tweets or someone else's: when you tap the "share tweet" button on mobile, you're presented with the option to share the tweet in the fleet, along with sending it in a direct message and other assorted sharing options.

share fleet button twitter

In a blog post announcing the product launch, Twitter's Joshua Harris and Sam Haveson wrote that fleets were meant to be a "lower pressure way for people to talk about what's happening" that would make it so that "everyone can easily join the conversation in a new way." The post claims that through tests in Brazil, Italy, India, and South Korea, Twitter found that fleets made it easier for users to share their thoughts, feelings, and opinions.

The lack of notifications when someone else shares your tweet, however, has drawn criticism from some users who speculated that the feature could be abused. 

"In case of brigading or influx, it'd be nice to see whose fleet led to such scenario," technology blogger Jane Manchun Wong wrote in a tweet, referencing mass harassment campaigns that frequently impact journalists. 

Instagram, the platform that's arguably put the Snapchat-pioneered "stories" format to use, also appears to allow users to share other people's posts to their story without notifying the original poster. 

Even on pre-fleet Twitter, it was possible to circumvent the automatic notification of a quote retweet by simply screenshotting someone's tweet and including it as an image, or quote-retweeting from a private account. Those cases, however, have different parameters: a screenshot of a tweet isn't a direct link to the poster's account, and quote retweets on private accounts don't air out someone potentially dunking on your tweet to the public sphere.

Fleet reposts could theoretically allow users, whether purposely or inadvertently, to direct their followers towards another person's account, potentially leading to harassment, which is a well-documented issue on the platform. As it stands, the original poster wouldn't necessarily have direct knowledge about where any such harassment or increased engagement with their tweet was coming from. Furthermore, the fleet disappears after 24 hours, potentially making it even more difficult to track down a source.

Twitter has been forced to consistently reckon with harassment issues over the years. A 2018 Amnesty International report found that women, particularly Black women and women of color, regularly faced abuse on the platform.  CEO Jack Dorsey said in an April 2019 TED Talk that Twitter makes it "super easy" to harass others, creating a "pretty terrible situation" for women of color in particular, and that the company was working to address the problem. This year, Twitter implemented a feature that allowed users to limit or block replies to their tweets in an effort to curb harassment on the platform.

A Twitter spokesperson confirmed to Insider that right now, users will not be notified "if someone fleets their tweet," but that it's something that the platform is working on, saying that Twitter is "always listening to feedback and working to improve Twitter to make sure it's safe tor people to contribute to the public conversation." Fleets must abide by Twitter's rules, which state that targeted harassment or content that incites it is not allowed on the platform, and users can report fleets as well.

For the moment, many worry that fleets could become a new avenue for targeted harassment, with users left unaware as to where it's coming from. 

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