Toxic Twitter - A Toxic Place for Women

Chapter 1

  • Research

 WARNING:

This report contains descriptions of violence against women. 

As a company, Twitter is failing to respect women's rights online.

Twitter is a social media platform used by hundreds of millions of people around the world to debate, network and share information with each other. From high-level female politicians to journalists, activists, writers and bloggers, to women who simply want to know what’s happening around them - Twitter can be a powerful tool for women to make connections and express themselves. In fact, the company has touted itself as a place where ‘every voice has the power to impact the world’.

But for many women, Twitter is a platform where violence and abuse against them flourishes, often with little accountability. As a company, Twitter is failing in its responsibility to respect women’s rights online by inadequately investigating and responding to reports of violence and abuse in a transparent manner.

The violence and abuse many women experience on Twitter has a detrimental effect on their right to express themselves equally, freely and without fear. Instead of strengthening women’s voices, the violence and abuse many women experience on the platform leads women to self-censor what they post, limit their interactions, and even drives women off Twitter completely.

At a watershed moment when women around the world are using their collective power to speak out and amplify their voices through social media platforms, Twitter’s failure to adequately respect human rights and effectively tackle violence and abuse on the platform means that instead of women using their voices ‘to impact the world’, many women are instead being pushed backwards to a culture of silence.

Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland
Online Abuse is unacceptable for women in politics, just as it’s unacceptable for a woman anywhere to suffer that kind of abuse.

Examples of abusive tweets mentioning Nicola Sturgeon.

#ToxicTwitter

A Toxic Place for Women

As the world becomes increasingly connected online, our reliance on social media platforms such as Twitter has also become increasingly important. But the online world, and social media platforms like Twitter are not immune to many of the human rights abuses that women face offline.

Over the last 16 months, Amnesty International has conducted qualitative and quantitative research about women’s experiences on social media platforms including the scale, nature and impact of violence and abuse directed towards women on Twitter, with a particular focus on the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States of America (USA). Such abuse includes direct or indirect threats of physical or sexual violence, discriminatory abuse targeting one or more aspects of a woman’s identity, targeted harassment, and privacy violations such as doxing or sharing sexual or intimate images of a woman without her consent.

Over the course of this research, Amnesty International interviewed 86 women both individually and in groups in the UK and USA. We spoke to female politicians, journalists, activists, bloggers, writers, comedians, games developers as well as women who use the platform but do not have a large following. Amnesty International also spoke with dozens of experts in the United Kingdom and United States working in the field of women’s rights, identity-based discrimination, technology, and digital rights about violence and abuse against women on social media platforms. Amnesty International consulted with multiple organizations and individuals, particularly in the UK, when developing our recommendations and solutions for Twitter. The research highlights the particular experiences of violence and abuse on Twitter against women of colour, women from ethnic or religious minorities, lesbian, bisexual or transgender women - as well as non-binary individuals – and women with disabilities, to expose the intersectional nature of abuse on the platform. In November 2017, the organization commissioned Ipsos MORI to conduct an online poll in 8 countries, including the UK and US, about women’s experiences of abuse or harassment on social media platforms more generally and its impact on women’s freedom of expression online as well as the psychological impact of online abuse and harassment.

Overall, our findings paint a worrying picture that Twitter can be a toxic place for its female users. The company’s failure to meet its responsibilities regarding violence and abuse means that many women are no longer able to express themselves freely on the platform without fear of violence or abuse.

I think Twitter is the worst of the social media platforms, just because of the quickened and masked flow [of abuse] that happens. The content feels pretty similar across the platforms but the sheer volume of it on Twitter is what’s different.
Jessica Valenti, US journalist and writer

 

What is Twitter?

Twitter operates in 43 languages and was created in 2006. On 21 March that year, co-founder and current Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Jack Dorsey sent the first tweet on the platform that read ‘just setting up my twttr’.  Initially conceived as a Short Message Service (SMS)-based platform, Twitter has since turned into one of the world’s largest online social media platforms and has over 330 million monthly active users.

Over the last 12 years, Twitter has become a place that people use in both a professional and personal capacity. From human rights activists coordinating protests on Twitter to people from marginalized communities creating solidarity networks or politicians engaging with constituents outside of traditional office hours - Twitter offers its users around the world an opportunity to make connections across industries and regions at a speed that was almost unthinkable only a decade ago.

Why Twitter?

Although violence and abuse against women is certainly not limited to any one social media platform, Twitter is one of the world’s largest social media companies and its platform is one of the most influential globally. Twitter is, therefore, critical in any effort to tackle violence and abuse online.

Moreover, the very nature of Twitter encourages users to have public conversations and share their thoughts with others (often strangers) on the platform, meaning that users arguably most benefit from Twitter when they are able to participate in discussions openly. In fact, Twitter's ability to provide ‘up-to-the-minute reactions’ means that public figures are able to bypass traditional media outlets and engage directly with their audiences. However, the open and public nature of these interactions also means that the platform is vulnerable to being used to send violent and abusive content. The ease and speed with which content can proliferate on Twitter means that women’s experiences of violence and abuse on the platform requires an urgent and adequate response from the company.       

In our initial research on violence and abuse against women on social media platforms, many women we interviewed repeatedly highlighted Twitter as a place where violence and abuse against women is widespread and where inadequate remedies exist for those who experience such abuse. Twitter itself has publicly acknowledged that they have a lot more work to do when it comes to tackling violence and abuse against women on the platform. Multiple executives from the company have stated that the platform has a problem with abuse. For example, in 2017, CEO Jack Dorsey stated,

We see voices being silenced on Twitter every day. We’ve been working to counteract this for the past 2 years…We prioritized this in 2016. We updated our policies and increased the size of our teams. It wasn’t enough.
Jack Dorsey, CEO at Twitter

 

Women want to be on Twitter

Many of the women who spoke to Amnesty International about the violence and abuse they experience on Twitter emphasized how important the platform is to them – both professionally and personally. Women rely on social media platforms like Twitter to advocate, communicate, mobilize, access information and gain visibility. 

Pamela Merritt, a US blogger and reproductive rights activist, told us,

“I am a bit of a Twitter addict. I wake up, I check Twitter. I have two cups of coffee, and I check it again. Being online is important for my work. I want to know what’s going on. I want to know what people are saying and I want to weigh in, so I’m on Twitter through the day”. 

Seyi Akiwowo, UK Politician and activist, talked about how Twitter makes her feel part of a movement and ‘puts words to her experiences’ of being a woman of colour. She told us,

 “I feel torn. I love Twitter. The platform has connected me to people I will probably never see in my entire life and they are amazing, successful and inspirational people. There is now a massive movement of women of colour online. We express our beauty and confidence and talk about self-care and intersectional inequality…and so some of my life changing moments and development into womanhood has happened because of and via Twitter. I remember finding my first international job through Twitter. The possibilities and opportunities on that platform are endless.”

 Imani Gandy, US journalist, also stressed how Twitter has become the epi-centre of communications and solidarity for marginalized communities. She explains, 

“I think Twitter has become the new public square. I’ve found Twitter to be a really good platform for people who normally don’t have as much of a say in the political process. I’m talking primarily young people and people of colour. There is a reason that ‘Black Twitter’ is a thing. It has been really powerful that black people have been able to come together to reach out to other black people across the country. Whether it’s dishing about the latest episode of Scandal or organizing around Black Lives Matter – it has really become a powerful tool. And elite politicians are not used to having to answer to these types of people.” 

Politicians themselves agree. Scottish Parliamentarian and Leader of the Opposition, Ruth Davidson, emphasized how important Twitter is as a tool to communicate and listen to her constituents and the wider public. She notes,

“Social media platforms are where a lot of political debate now happens, particularly as we see the divide in age range of voters. For a lot of younger voters, actually – they don’t want to be told things – they want to be able to discuss them.” 

Twitter remains an important tool for women across industries. US writer Chelsea Cain told Amnesty International how she relied on Twitter to talk to other writers when she moved from writing novels to writing comics. She explains,

“I have a lot of friends who work in comics and we kept in touch via Twitter. The comic book industry uses Twitter like a bulletin board -- it's the place everyone comes when they have an announcement or a complaint. Readers. Editors. Artists. Writers. Colourists. Letterers. Everyone I know in comics is on Twitter. The platform really fuels a connection between creators and fans. Facebook is for novels. Twitter is for comics. Don't ask me why."

In addition to movement-building and networking, some women simply use Twitter to communicate what they are up to. Comics writer Kelly Sue DeConnick told us,

“Sometimes I use social media as a public figure to promote books and appearances. Often I use it just to be social with people, just to chat.” 

But despite all the possibilities and the positive ways in which the platform is used by women on a daily basis, Twitter remains fertile ground for reinforcing existing gender inequalities and discrimination against women online. Harmful and negative gender stereotypes of women offline, as well as widespread discrimination against women rooted in patriarchal structures, manifest as violent and abusive tweets against some women on Twitter. All forms of violence and abuse against women, both in the physical and digital world, must be seen through the lens of the systematic marginalization of women throughout society. Violence and abuse against women on Twitter is not a new phenomenon, it is simply an extension of existing and systematic discrimination against women that has found its way into the digital sphere. As First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, explains, 

“There’s a link between the misogyny and abuse that women experiences offline and online... Social media is just a different way of committing these acts. Ultimately it’s the misogyny lying behind it that is the problem. So, it’s that we have to tackle, not just the means by which people are able to spread their hate and misogyny and abuse.”

UK journalist Hadley Freeman agrees. She told Amnesty, 

“I think there is a connection between the misogyny women face offline and the abuse they face online. I mean, a nice guy isn't going to be calling women "infected c*nts" online, is he?”

Women of colour, in particular, emphasized to Amnesty International that in addition to Twitter manifesting existing patriarchal structures in society, ideologies of white supremacy are also permeating into the platform. Renee Bracey Sherman, a US abortion rights activist, explained how the violence and abuse she experiences on social media platforms went to a deeper level when she started talking about reproductive rights issues or the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. She told Amnesty,

“When I started talking about abortion, the abuse on Twitter went to a deeper level. When I talked about BLM, it went to a deeper level. That’s the deep issue of how much white supremacy and misogyny is really embedded in our culture. And people are upset when marginalized folks, black folks, women of colour, trans women, trans folks – when they reclaim their narrative and are unapologetic – it makes people uncomfortable. And this primal level of attack comes out and they just say such disgusting things.”

Examples of abusive tweets sent to US abortion rights activist @RBraceySherman.

Many women interviewed by Amnesty International spoke about the fact that the online world, more generally, has created spaces where people feel emboldened to say things to people that they would not necessarily say offline. 

Scottish Women’s Rights Activist Talat Yaqoob explains how the sexist, racist and Islamophobic abuse she receives on Twitter is far worse than anything she has experienced offline. 

“I, 100%, don’t experience the level of abuse offline that I do online. I experience it – but the frequency of it and the toxic nature of it is more online than what I experience in real life because people know they get away with it more. If people do it, it’s behind an anonymous Twitter profile. Offline, you have to be physically in front of me. I don’t think that people understand the consequences of what they say online.”

Twitter’s Human Rights Responsibilities

Under the United Nations (UN) Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, Twitter, as a company, has a specific responsibility to respect all human rights – including the rights to non-discrimination and freedom of expression and opinion – and to take concrete steps to avoid causing or contributing to abuses of those rights.  This includes taking action to identify, prevent, address and account for human rights abuses that are linked to its operations. Specifically, as part of its human rights due diligence, Twitter should be assessing – on an ongoing and proactive basis – how its policies and practices impact on users’ right to freedom of expression and opinion as well other rights, and take steps to mitigate or prevent any possible negative impacts. It is also critical that Twitter is transparent about its policies and practices and the steps it is taking to identify and address human rights abuses.

Amnesty International contacted Twitter in January 2018 requesting that the company share information and data on how it responds to reports of violence and abuse on Twitter, including disaggregated information on the number of reports of abuse it receives, the number of reports found in violation of the Twitter rules and response times to reports of abuse. Greater transparency around the number of content moderators it employs and details on how they are trained on gender and other identity-based forms of abuse and international human rights standards was also requested. Twitter stated in a letter dated 14 February 2018 that releasing such data would be uninformative and potentially misleading. Twitter stated,

“Meaningful transparency is a question we share your passion for. The question of absolute numbers of reports and the proportion of accounts that are actioned is one on which we continue to reflect. However, it is important to note that this type of information can be both uninformative and potentially misleading. One of the challenges, as we have discussed with your Amnesty colleagues previously, is that users regularly report content with which they disagree or in some cases, with the direct intent of trying to silence another user’s voice for political reasons. Moreover, there is a misperception that the volume of reports impacts our enforcement decisions, but this is not the case. In our meeting you discussed potential targets in this space, and we would be interested to hear any ideas you might have.”

Amnesty International agrees that this context is important to understand in the reporting process, however this does not negate Twitter’s human rights responsibility to be transparent in how it is dealing with reports of violence and abuse on the platform nor does it take away from the fact that understanding how Twitter is responding to specific reports of abuse will only help strengthen and empower user’s understanding of how such abuse is dealt with. Moreover, knowing the true scale of abuse on the platform ultimately allows everyone to help develop more concrete solutions to tackle the problem.

In a further letter to Amnesty International dated 15 March 2018, Twitter reiterated that abuse and hateful conduct directed at women are prohibited on the platform, that the company had made changes to improve safety on the platform and had increased the number of actions taken against abusive accounts:

“Abuse and hateful conduct directed at women, including direct threats of violence, and harassment, are prohibited on Twitter. We have made more than 30 individual changes to our product, policies and operations in the past 16 months, all with the goal of improving safety for everyone. We now take action on 10 times the number of abusive accounts as the same time last year.”

Amnesty International acknowledges that Twitter has recently taken steps to improve women’s experiences on the platform, however the organization’s assessment is that these are not yet sufficient to adequately tackle the scale and nature of violence and abuse against women on Twitter.

Dick Costolo, former Twitter CEO

We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we've sucked at it for years…We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day. I'm frankly ashamed of how poorly we've dealt with this issue during my tenure as CEO. It's absurd. There's no excuse for it.
Dick Costolo, former Twitter CEO (2015)

Vijaya Gadde, Twitter General Council

Freedom of expression means little as our underlying philosophy if we continue to allow voices to be silenced because they are afraid to speak up.
Vijaya Gadde, General Counsel (2015)

 Jack Dorsey, Current Twitter CEO (2016)

Abuse is not part of civil discourse. It shuts down conversation and prevents us from understanding one another. No one deserves to be a target of abuse online and it doesn’t have a place on Twitter.
Jack Dorsey, Current Twitter CEO (2016)

Jack Dorsey, Current Twitter CEO (2017)

We see voices being silenced on Twitter every day. We’ve been working to counteract this for the past 2 years…We prioritized this in 2016. We updated our policies and increased the size of our teams. It wasn’t enough.
Jack Dorsey, Current Twitter CEO (2017)

Jack Dorsey, Current Twitter CEO (2018) 

…We love instant, public, global messaging and conversation. It’s what Twitter is and it’s why we’re here. But we didn’t fully predict or understand the real-world negative consequences. We acknowledge that now, and are determined to find holistic and fair solutions.
Jack Dorsey, Current Twitter CEO (2018)