Twitter Inc in recent days removed a feature that promoted suicide prevention hotlines and other safety resources to users seeking certain content, according to two people familiar with the matter who said it had been commissioned by new owner Elon Musk.
The removal of the feature, known as #ThereIsHelp, has not previously been reported. It had shown at the top specific searches of contacts of 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 could add to concerns about the welfare of vulnerable users on Twitter. Musk said impressions or opinions of harmful content have been declining since he took office in October and tweeted graphs showing a downward trend, although researchers and civil rights groups followed by an increase in tweets with racial slurs and other hateful content.
Twitter and Musk did not respond to requests for comment on the feature’s removal.
Washington-based AIDS United, which has been promoted in #ThereIsHelp, and iLaw, a Thai group mentioned for supporting free speech, both told Reuters on Friday that the feature’s disappearance surprised them.
AIDS United said a webpage to which the Twitter feature was linked drew about 70 views a day through December 18. Since then, she has attracted 14 views in total.
Damar Juniarto, executive director of Twitter partner Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network, tweeted about the missing feature on Friday and said “foolish actions” by the social media service could lead his organization to abandon it.
Reuters could not immediately determine why Musk would order the feature removed. Sources with knowledge of his decision declined to be named as they feared reprisals. One said millions of people had encountered #ThereIsHelp messages.
Eirliani Abdul Rahman, who was part of a recently disbanded Twitter content advisory group, said the disappearance of #ThereIsHelp was “extremely disconcerting and deeply disturbing”.
Even if it was only temporarily removed to make room for improvements, “normally you would work on it in parallel, not remove it,” she said.
Partly under pressure from consumer safety groups, internet services such as Twitter, Google and Facebook have tried for years to direct users to well-known resource providers such as government helplines when they suspect someone is in danger.
Twitter launched prompts 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 on the feature, Twitter said it had a responsibility to ensure users can “access and receive support on our service when they need it most.”
Just as Musk bought the company, the feature was expanded to show information related to research on natural disasters in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Alex Goldenberg, senior intelligence analyst at the nonprofit Network Contagion Research Institute, said prompts that showed up in search results just days ago were no longer visible Thursday.
He and his colleagues published a study in August showing that monthly Twitter mentions of certain terms associated with self-harm increased by more than 500% from around the previous year, with young users being particularly at risk when they see such content.
“If this decision is emblematic of a change in policy that they no longer take these issues seriously, that’s extremely dangerous,” Goldenberg said. “This goes against Musk’s previous commitments to put the safety of children first.”
Musk said he wanted to tackle child pornography on Twitter and criticized the former owner’s handling of the issue. But it cut off much of the teams involved in dealing with potentially objectionable material.