There are a lot of things that just come with being Robin Williams's daughter, Zelda. There's the celebrity, the whimsical name, the innately charming manner. But until her father's death on Aug. 11, disturbing Twitter harassment didn't make the list.
It began in the days after her father's suicide, when Zelda tweeted a poetic farewell, a quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince: "In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night "¦"
"I love you, I miss you," Zelda added. "I'll try to keep looking up."
Her response was re-tweeted more than 88,000 times and, while most of the responses expressed condolence and heartbreak, two Twitter users with the handles of @Pimpstory and @MrGoosebuster commenced tweeting fake images of her father's corpse at her. Zelda became upset and tweeted to her followers to help her in reporting the abuse. Later she announced she would delete the Twitter application on her phone and was contemplating closing her account.
Enter Del Harvey, Twitter's vice president of trust and safety, who on Wednesday sought to temper concern about Zelda's complaint. He said in a statement:
We will not tolerate abuse of this nature on Twitter. We have suspended a number of accounts related to this issue for violating our rules and we are in the process of evaluating how we can further improve our policies to better handle tragic situations like this one. This includes expanding our policies regarding self-harm and private information, and improving support for family members of deceased users.
Zelda's abusers may have been suspended, but that doesn't stop the users who tormented her from establishing new accounts under different names. As The Washington Post's Caitlin Dewey reported, one of the users harassing Zelda has bragged on Twitter that some of his handles (i.e. usernames) are still active. While he may have lost a few handles, there's little to keep him from going after other people online using a different account.
In a Thursday column, Slate's Amanda Hess, who has reported extensively on Twitter's harassment problem, was similarly underwhelmed by the company's response. "Twitter defines targeted abuse as 'sending messages to a user from multiple accounts,' starting an account with 'the sole purpose' of sending 'abusive messages to others' and engaging in behavior that is 'one-sided or includes threats,' " she observed. "The company's definition of a 'threat' is pretty close to the criminal version: Twitter bans 'direct, specific threats of violence against others,' which is a pretty high bar.'"
Another high bar: Zelda Williams is the daughter of one of the world's most beloved celebrities. His death rocked the world and is already changing the way the media talks about depression, mental illness, and suicide. If it took something this high profile and tragic to elicit a narrow, incremental change, how encouraging is that, really? And if Twitter has 271 million monthly active users, as their internal numbers suggest, how many other less-famous users have suffered similar abuse?