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Exclusive: Twitter removes suicide prevention feature, says it's under overhaul

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Dec 23 (Reuters) – Twitter Inc in recent days removed a feature that promoted suicide prevention hotlines and other safety features for users looking for certain content, according to two people familiar with the matter who said it was ordered by the new owner Elon Musk.

After this story was published, Twitter’s head of trust and safety Ella Irwin told Reuters in an email that “we are fixing and renewing our prompts. They have been temporarily removed while we do this.”

“We hope to have them back next week,” she said.

The removal of the feature, known as #ThereIsHelp, has not been previously reported. It had shown at the top of specific searches contacts for support organizations in many countries related to mental health, HIV, vaccines, child sexual exploitation, COVID-19, gender-based violence, natural disasters and freedom of expression.

Its removal has raised concerns about the well-being of vulnerable users on Twitter. Musk said impressions, or views, of harmful content had been declining since he took office in October and tweeted graphs showing a downward trend, even as researchers and civil rights groups tracked an increase in tweets with racial slurs and other hateful content.

Partly due to pressure from consumer safety groups, internet services including Twitter, Google and Facebook have for years tried to direct users to providers of well-known resources, such as government hotlines, when they suspect someone might be in danger. .

In his email, Twitter’s Irwin said: “Google does really well with this in their search results and (we) are reflecting some of their approach with the changes we’re making.”

She added, “We know these prompts are useful in a lot of cases, and we just want to make sure they’re working properly and remain relevant.”

Eirliani Abdul Rahman, who was part of a recently disbanded Twitter content advisory group, said the disappearance of #ThereIsHelp was “extremely baffling and deeply disturbing”.

Even if it was only temporarily removed to make room for improvements, “normally you would be working on it in parallel, not removing it,” she said.

Washington-based AIDS United, which was promoted on #ThereIsHelp, and iLaw, a Thai group cited for its support of free speech, told Reuters on Friday that the feature’s disappearance came as a surprise to them.

AIDS United said a web page linked to the Twitter feature drew about 70 views a day through Dec. 18. It has since attracted 14 total views.

Damar Juniarto, executive director of Freedom of Expression Network, Twitter’s partner in Southeast Asia, tweeted on Friday about the missing feature and said “stupid actions” by the social media service could lead his organization to abandon it.

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

Twitter released some prompts about five years ago and some were available in more than 30 countries, according to tweets from the company. In one of its blog posts about the feature, Twitter said it had a responsibility to ensure users could “access and receive support on our service when they need it most”.

Alex Goldenberg, chief intelligence analyst at the nonprofit Network Contagion Research Institute, said the prompts displayed in search results just a few days ago were no longer visible on Thursday.

He and his colleagues in August published a study showing that monthly mentions on Twitter of some terms associated with self-harm increased by more than 500% from the previous year, with younger users particularly at risk for seeing such content.

“If this decision is emblematic of a policy shift that they no longer take these issues seriously, that is extraordinarily dangerous,” Goldenberg said. “This goes against Musk’s past commitments to prioritize child safety.”

Musk has said he wants to tackle child sexual abuse content on Twitter and has criticized the previous owner’s handling of the issue. But he cut most of the staff involved in handling potentially objectionable material.

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

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Paresh Dave

Thomson Reuters

San Francisco Bay Area technology reporter covering Google and the rest of Alphabet Inc. He joined Reuters in 2017 after four years at the Los Angeles Times focusing on the local technology industry.