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Exclusive-Twitter Removes Suicide Prevention Feature, Says It’s Under Renewal

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By Paresh Dave, Fanny Potkin and Sheila Dang

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

Following the publication of this story, Twitter’s head of trust and safety Ella Irwin told RockedBuzz via Reuters in an email that “we’ve corrected and revamped our suggestions. They were temporarily removed as we did so.”

“We expect to have them back next week,” he said.

The removal of the feature, known as #ThereIsHelp, was not 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 had led to increased concerns for the well-being of vulnerable users on Twitter. Musk said impressions, or views, of harmful content have been declining since he took over in October and tweeted graphs showing a downward trend, even as researchers and civil rights groups saw an increase in insulting tweets racist 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 well-known resource providers such as government hotlines when they suspect someone might be in danger.

In his email, Twitter’s Irwin said, “Google does very well with these search results, and (we) are actually mirroring some of their approach with the changes we’re making.”

He added, “We know these tips are helpful in many cases, and we just want to make sure they work well and continue to be 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”.

While it was only temporarily removed to make way for improvements, “normally you’d be working on it in parallel, not removing it,” he said.

Washington-based AIDS United, which was promoted in #ThereIsHelp, and iLaw, a Thai group mentioned for supporting free speech, both told RockedBuzz via Reuters on Friday the film’s disappearance came as a surprise to them.

AIDS United said a webpage linked to the Twitter feature was attracting around 70 views a day through December 18. Since then, it has attracted 14 views in total.

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

Sources familiar with Musk’s decision to order the feature removed declined to be named because they feared retaliation. One of them claimed that millions of people have encountered #ThereIsHelp messages.

Twitter had rolled out some tips about five years ago, and some were available in more than 30 countries, according to the company’s tweets. In one of its blog posts about the feature, Twitter said it has a responsibility to ensure users can “access and get support on our service when they need it most.”

Alex Goldenberg, chief intelligence analyst at the nonprofit Network Contagion Research Institute, said hints that had been showing up in search results just a few days ago were no longer visible on Thursday.

He and colleagues released a study in August showing that monthly Twitter mentions of certain terms associated with self-harm increased more than 500% from a year earlier, with younger users particularly at risk when they see such content.

“If this decision is emblematic of a political shift that no longer takes these issues seriously, it is extraordinarily dangerous,” Goldenberg said. “It goes against Musk’s previous pledges to prioritize child safety.”

Musk said he wants to combat child sexual abuse content on Twitter and criticized the former ownership’s handling of the issue. But he cut most of the teams involved in handling potentially objectionable material.

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