Toxic Twitter - Triggers of Violence and Abuse Against Women on Twitter

Chapter 2

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WARNING:

This report contains descriptions of violence against women. 

 

Violence and abuse against women on Twitter comes in many forms and targets women in different ways. Women who experience multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination offline often find that violence and abuse online also targets their different identities. Non-binary individuals can also face targeted and misogynistic abuse online for not conforming to gender norms of male and female.

When I was elected in 2015 and even during my election campaign, I found myself at the other end of horrific levels of abuse. And the question is: why might that be? Is everyone receiving the same levels of abuse? Is it women? Is it because I’m a BAME (Black Asian Minority Ethnic) woman?
Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, former UK Politician

Triggers of Violence and Abuse

Women are targeted with violence and abuse on Twitter for a variety of different reasons. Sometimes it is for speaking out about certain (often feminist) issues and sometimes it is because they are public figures. A joint statement by the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on Violence against Women and Freedom of Expression highlighted how violence and abuse against women online can “chill and disrupt the online participation of women journalists, activists, human rights defenders, artists and other public figures and private persons.”

When asked about what triggers abuse against her on Twitter, UK writer Danielle Dash explained,

“The amount of abuse on Twitter depends on what you post. For example, if you talk about the EU, if you talk about race, if you talk about race and politics, if you talk about race and politics and gender, if you talk about rape – those are some of the triggering things that will attract the attention. It’s like a dog whistle to them.”

UK journalist Nosheen Iqbal emphasized how the abuse she receives on Twitter is often sparked by writing strong opinion pieces. She also emphasized how the abuse can spiral out of control if someone with a large following is the original perpetrator of the abuse. She notes,

“On Twitter, the general abuse I receive comes after I write opinion pieces. Expressing an opinion or a strong opinion will get you roasted online…The most memorable is when someone has a large following and all the followers jump in. You just don’t expect it – you shouldn’t expect it. Attitudes to women are heinous online.”

Sometimes, perpetrators of abuse will seek trending hashtags to target Twitter users who identify with feminist causes or concerns. For example, in October 2015, the popular feminist hashtags #TakeBackTheTech and #ImagineAFeministInternet were targeted by an organized Twitter attack with thousands of misogynistic tweets and memes. The attack was in response to a tweet chat organised by the Internet Governance Forum Best Practice Forum on Countering Online Violence and Abuse meeting to discuss the impact of such violence and abuse. The organizer of the tweet chat also received an email in her personal inbox that stated the Twitter attack aimed to “destroy” the campaign.

Women from marginalized communities can also be targeted for violence and abuse on Twitter because they are viewed by some people to represent the opinions of an entire community. UK journalist and campaigner Shaista Aziz explains,

“I actually don’t think there are that many visible Muslim women with public platforms, so when you do have one, you become the individual that everything is targeted to.”

Women also experience violence and abuse online in response to opinions about a range of matters that are not necessarily related to feminism or gender equality. For example, UK women’s rights activist Sian Norris described how she once tweeted about how much she disliked an Amazon advertisement featuring British broadcaster Jeremy Clarkson and was told to drink floor polish as a response.

Example of abusive tweet sent to UK activist Sian Norris

Women who are public figures are often particular targets of violence and abuse online, including on Twitter. A report by the Association for Progressive Communications and Hivos found that prominent women bloggers, journalists and leaders are regularly subjected to violence and abuse online, especially when it is related to fields where men have been traditionally held as experts, such as gaming, politics and technology. 

Journalists

The public nature of journalism and the dependency of journalists on social media platforms to report the news or express opinions about current affairs makes female journalists prime targets for targeted violence and abuse. In the words of Dunja Mijatović, former Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Representative on Freedom of the Media,

“Female journalists and bloggers throughout the globe are being inundated with threats of murder, rape, physical violence and graphic imagery via email, commenting sections and across all social media…Male journalists are also targeted with online abuse, however, the severity, in terms of both sheer amount and content of abuse, including sexist and misogynistic vitriol, is much more extreme for female journalists.”

Many of the female journalists we spoke to emphasized how important Twitter, in particular, is to their work.  Journalists are often expected to be active on Twitter to push stories out to their readers and to attract new audiences. In fact, journalists use Twitter to build their social capital by breaking news in their communities - which translates into more readers and which can attract more advertisers and result in economic gains. Female freelance journalists we spoke to stressed that they are reliant on Twitter for networking and securing employment. For many female journalists, not being on Twitter simply isn’t an option. 

Due to the reliance on Twitter as a platform deeply connected to their profession, female journalists have had to come to terms with the fact that what they post on social media platforms will often be met with violent and abusive commentary. When asked about her experience of violence and abuse on Twitter, Scottish journalist Vonny Moyes told us,

“The majority of the abuse I receive is Twitter-based because I have a very active Twitter profile and following – part of which is necessary for the job I do. You can’t really be a journalist without being on Twitter these days because it’s where news breaks. Its where a lot of my work comes from…

…I guess I would say I have come to expect everything I post online, whether it’s a tweet or a piece of writing to have some type of pushback. It’s become as if I have had to develop combat navigation skills, not just to do my job but to be a woman occupying space on the internet.”

In some instances, threats of violence and abuse against female journalists are so severe that high-profile female journalists take multiple precautionary measures in case the threats made against them online transpire offline. For example, in September 2017, BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg was assigned bodyguards while covering a political party conference.  In January 2018, UK Channel 4 news presenter Cathy Newman had to bring on specialist security experts to verify online threats made against her, including threats on Twitter.

Politicians

Women in politics have also been particular targets of violence and abuse online. A study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union showed that social media platforms, including Twitter, have become the number one place in which violence and abuse against women parliamentarians is perpetrated. By attempting to silence and exclude the voices of women in politics, violence and abuse online are yet another challenge to women’s political engagement. Violence and abuse against women Members of Parliament (MPs) in the UK have been of particular concern in recent years. For example, in January 2018, MP Anna Soubry submitted multiple tweets to the police containing death threats against her. In September 2017, Amnesty International used machine learning to measure and analyse online abuse against women MPs active on Twitter in the UK between 1 January and 8 June 2017, with a particular focus on the six weeks leading up to the UK General Election. The analysis reinforced the way in which online abuse targets different identities and found that Diane Abbott, the Shadow Home Secretary and  first black female MP in the UK - alone - received almost half (45.14%) of all abuse against women MPs active on Twitter in the UK during this period.

 

Diane Abbott said,

“I welcome scrutiny, and I welcome engagement, and I welcome debate. That’s why I was so positive about these online platforms. But the problem is when people are not engaging in debate or scrutiny but just showering you with abuse — saying that you are a nigg*r, that you are a prostitute, threats against your safety. It’s just abuse which has no political content and which actually people wouldn’t say in a meeting or to your face.”

Number of abusive Tweets received by Diane Abbott and two UK political parties.

First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon agrees. She told Amnesty International,

“I think we have to be very vigilant about genuine and legitimate criticism crossing that line and becoming unacceptable abuse. I think for politicians that threshold is higher…When that kind of commentary crosses a line and becomes threatening or just downright abusive, then I think politicians, just like anybody else, have a right to call that out and say that’s not acceptable…Online abuse poisons the well of political engagement for a vast majority of people who want to use those mediums in a really positive way.”

Amnesty International’s research also found that violence and abuse against women cuts across all political parties in the UK demonstrating that targeted violence and abuse against female politicians is a bi-partisan issue that does not pay heed to political boundaries.

Women’s Rights Activists  

Threats, intimidation and harassment have been part and parcel of many women’s experiences of standing up for human rights. The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders reaffirms rights that are essential for women’s rights activists - including the rights to freedom of expression and opinion. But as activism has evolved to include social media platforms as a powerful place to organize and share information about human rights abuses – threats, intimidation and harassment against women’s rights activists have also moved to these same platforms. Multiple United Nations Resolutions have explicitly recognized the risk of violence and abuse and against women’s rights activists online.

Women’s rights activists are targeted on social media platforms like Twitter because they stand up to injustice. US blogger and reproductive rights activist Pamela Merritt shared multiple examples of how her work as a women’s rights activist has led to her being targeted with threats of violence and abuse on social media platforms, including Twitter,

“When I did a series of blog posts about police killings of black people I got tweets and comments saying I am an ‘ugly fat black b*tch and that I deserve to die’ or ‘you wouldn’t be upset with the cops if some giant nigg*r rapes you.’ If you write about abortion or about sexual violence then you are going to get a rape threat like ‘you should be raped’ or ‘I wouldn’t be upset if somebody raped you’. I did a post about black, queer women and got a bunch of comments about how ‘they should f*ck the queer out of you’ and ‘you just haven’t been f*cked well’.”

Pamela Merritt’s experiences are not isolated. A 2013 global monitoring survey conducted by the Association for Progressive Communications on sexual rights and the internet showed that while 98% of sexual rights activists see the internet as critical for their work, 51% of activists received violent and threatening messages online. A 2017 UK study conducted by the University of Northumbria titled ‘Online Abuse of Feminists as An Emerging form of Violence Against Women and Girls’ found that Twitter was the social media platform used most commonly by respondents for feminist debate (80%). It also found that respondents experienced the most abuse[1] on Twitter with some respondents reporting that abuse started when they began to use Twitter. The study found that 88% of the respondents who use Twitter regularly for feminist debate had experienced abuse on the platform.

UK reproductive rights activist Dawn Purvis told Amnesty:

“I have faced multiple layers of abuse on social media platforms, both on Twitter and on Facebook, both because I’m a woman and because of the stand I take on certain issues. On Twitter I was threatened and told that I deserved to be killed. I’ve been called a murderer, a killer, I’ve been called anti-woman - I’ve been called all sorts of names.”

It is important to stress that violence and abuse against women online is not only limited to women in the public eye. Women without a large or significant public following can also be targeted on Twitter. For example, Rachel*, a 19-year-old woman in the UK with just over 350 followers on Twitter described an experience where she posted a tweet about sexist behaviour towards her alongside a popular feminist hashtag. She detailed the level of abuse she received as a result,

“The hashtag is there to be a supportive tool and to make women feel like they are not alone. But the more popular the tweet becomes the more abuse you get. I had tweets saying ‘you are such a little b*tch’ or ‘Jimmy Saville should have raped you’.

The Intersectional Nature of Violence and Abuse against Women Online

Women have the right to live free from discrimination, both online and offline. The right to non-discrimination is a core provision in all international human rights standards. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women states,

“Discrimination against women’ shall mean any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.”

Additionally, UN General Assembly Resolution 68/181 affirms that violence and abuse against women on social media platforms can be a form of systematic gender discrimination against women. It states,

“…information-technology-related violations, abuses, discrimination and violence against women, including women human rights defenders…with a view to discrediting them and/or inciting other violations and abuses against them, are a growing concern and can be a manifestation of systemic gender-based discrimination…”

However, any analysis of violence and abuse against women online should not solely be seen through a gender lens.  Women who face discrimination because of their different identities offline often find that violence and abuse against them will target those same identities on Twitter. This is because an individual’s race, religion or sexual orientation, for example, can have just as much of an effect as gender — if not more — on how that person is treated both in the physical and digital world. In the case of online violence and abuse, women of colour, religious or ethnic minority women, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LBTI) women, women with disabilities, or non-binary individuals who do not conform to traditional gender norms of male and female, will often experience abuse that targets them in unique or compounded way. US Professor Kimberlé Cranshaw, who coined the term ‘intersectionality’[2] explains:

“Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things."

International human rights standards explicitly recognize the negative impact of intersecting forms of discrimination on the ability of women and girls to exercise their human rights. Almost every single woman interviewed for this study who has experienced multiple or intersecting forms of discrimination offline stressed to Amnesty International that the violence and abuse they experience on Twitter reflect these same forms of discrimination.

US journalist Imani Gandy explains her experience as a woman of colour on Twitter,

“I get harassment as a woman and I get the extra harassment because of race and being a black woman. They will call white women a ‘c*nt’ and they’ll call me a ‘n*gger c*nt’. Whatever identity they can pick they will pick it and use it against you.  Whatever slur they can come up with for a marginalized group – they use.”

Imani’s experience was echoed by many others. UK journalist Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff simply stated

"I’ve never had abuse only because I’m a woman – it’s almost always had to do with my race". 

Scottish Parliamentarian and Leader of the Opposition Ruth Davidson told Amnesty International that the abuse she faces is both misogynistic and homophobic. She said,

“..Because I’m openly gay – I was the first openly gay leader of a major political party in the UK- and particularly when I started, there was a lot of homophobic abuse. I have a lot of young gay followers on my Twitter, and for me it’s important to call that out….Every now and again, every month or so, I’ll retweet or push back on some of the homophobic abuse because I think it’s important that people see that sort of language is not acceptable – you don’t have to take it.”

US writer and presenter Sally Kohn, an openly lesbian woman, has had similar experiences on Twitter. She explained how her gender and sexual orientation both play a part in the abuse she receives. During the interview with Amnesty International she read out real-time comments she was receiving in response to a tweet she had posted a day earlier. The Twitter responses she received had nothing to do with the subject matter and included, Are you a boy or a girl?’ and ‘Are you – are you just really a man?’

Former UK Politician Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh also explained to Amnesty International how the abuse she receives on Twitter targets every aspect of her identity. She explained,

“I am from a Scottish Asian community. I am a Muslim. And I’m a woman. So it’s everything. It has an exponential effect, so people will pile on the abuse for a variety of different reasons. Some of them because you are all of these things, and some because you are one of these things, or two of these things, which makes it so much more difficult to deal with, because you just wonder where do I start with this?”

Irish Politician from Belfast Michaela Boyle told Amnesty International that the abuse she has received on social media platforms not only focuses on her appearance but also targets the fact that she has a disability. She told us,

“I have a physical disability and that has often been commented on - about how I should ‘get that disability fixed’. And that to me is derogatory. You know, I don’t care how my physical disability looks to others, I am comfortable in my own skin with it.”

Because intersectional discrimination is rooted in power and patriarchal structures, individuals who refuse to conform to gender binaries of male and female are also at risk of targeted abuse, especially if they are ‘femme’ presenting. Travis Alabanza, a trans, femme, non-binary UK actor and poet explains,

“I’m more interested in how we are all experiencing misogyny, and that’s why this violence online is happening to us. Not because of how we identify but because we’re all experiencing misogyny under the patriarchy.”

It is imperative that social media platforms like Twitter recognize the underlying factors that trigger online violence and abuse against people to ensure that their response both reflects and addresses these different experiences. Any approach to combatting violence and abuse on the platform that is not intersectional will only continue to further silence women from marginalized communities.

 

[1] The study describes ‘abuse’ as ‘harassment and sexual harassment, threats of physical and sexual violence, flaming and trolling, stalking, electronic sabotage, impersonation and defamation—and definitions, drawn from relevant contemporary research’. It also states that asking about ‘general’ and specific (‘the last incident’) experiences captured the range and specificity of abuse without focusing disproportionately on experiences which might skew the data towards the ‘worst’ incidents. Responses indicate that abuse can be experienced over extended periods, so an individual ‘incident’ can consist of a single communication or of many, over weeks or months.

[2] The concept of intersectionality was first coined by US legal academic Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 when she argued that the experiences of African-American women in the US were excluded from both feminist and anti-racist discourses. She argued that African-American women suffer different forms of discrimination than African-American men or white women. Understanding the experiences of African-American women requires analysing discrimination on the basis of both gender and race and how they interact, otherwise anti-racist analysis alone may risk narrowly focusing on (or prioritizing) the experiences of African-American men, and gender analysis alone may risk prioritizing the experiences of white women. As the concept has developed, intersectionality approaches recognise that everyone’s identity is made up of multiple components – including based on one’s sex, race, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, language(s) spoken, caste, class, disability, age, marital status, place of birth, and place of residence. People may identify (or be identified) more strongly with some of these factors more than others, and this may change over time.