Toxic Twitter - The Psychological Harms of Violence and Abuse Against Women Online
The psychological consequences of violence and online abuse remain under-researched, and as a result, understated.
However, almost every woman interviewed by Amnesty International spoke about the adverse impact of violence and abuse on Twitter on their mental health.
The findings of Amnesty International’s online poll support the experiences of the women we interviewed, showing that the majority of women polled across the 8 countries who experienced abuse or harassment on social media platforms reported stress, anxiety, panic attacks, powerlessness and loss of confidence as a result.
The abuse has definitely increased my anxiety. There are definitely days where I can’t even work and I can’t even focus because I’m in such a bad mood.
Online Versus Offline Realities
Some people may believe that when the violence and abuse women face is online, it can simply be ignored or shrugged off – but almost every woman who spoke to Amnesty International emphasized that this simply is not the case. In particular, women highlighted the interlinkages between their online and offline identities and stressed how violence and abuse online impacts their lives offline.
US reproductive rights activist and blogger Erin Matson explains,
“The distinction between our online and offline lives is a false distinction. There is an attitude that it’s just name calling and the online world is not real and one’s feelings getting hurt online is not a real problem. But the online world is real and our offline lives are absolutely integrated with the online space. The idea that we don’t need online platforms to survive is false.”
US activist Shireen Mitchell agrees. She states,
“The conversation that the online and offline worlds are different is a key piece of the problem. The online equals the offline and the offline equals the online.”
A majority of women in the UK and USA agree that abuse that takes place online can have an impact on women’s lives more widely. In fact, in both countries, more than 3 times as many women polled disagree (63% and 61%) than agree (19% in both countries) that online abuse and harassment can be stopped by just ignoring it.
UK politician Ruth Davidson stressed to Amnesty,
“Just because you say something on a keyboard and not to someone’s face, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. It does matter. It can have a huge impact on people. There needs to be an understanding of the seriousness of what this is – rather than the kind of frivolous ‘Oh they only said it on Twitter so it doesn’t matter’. Actually, it does”.
The Toll of Violence and Abuse against Women Online
It is important to remember that the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, psychological or economic harm or suffering to women….whether occurring in public or in private life”. Although little research exists about the psychological impact of violence and abuse online, Amnesty International’s qualitative and quantitative research demonstrates that violence and abuse against women on Twitter risks causing psychological harm and suffering to women. A study by UNESCO on ‘Building Digital Safety for Journalists’ also acknowledges that, “Despite a lack of aggregated data and specific studies on the issue, experts say there is enough evidence to suggest that the online harassment of journalists, including threats of violence, has a serious psychological impact that may result in self-censorship.”
Women who spoke to Amnesty International during the course of this investigation told us about increased anxiety, a loss of self-confidence, trouble sleeping, and an overall feeling of disempowerment after experiencing violence and abuse on Twitter. Interviews with mental health experts also detailed the negative psychological implications of online violence and abuse on women. Licensed mental health specialist and former Director of Online SOS, Samantha Silverberg, told Amnesty International,
“There is little research examining the psychological toll online abuse has on individuals. Anecdotally, we can see the toll when individuals are fearful of opening their emails, unable to return to work, or are making other changes to their daily lives based on fears related to the abuse.
The lack of certainty around the practicality of threats made makes an individual that much more cautious as to how he or she interacts with the world around him or her. These threats do not just exist on the internet, they exist in reality, placing the threat anywhere due to this missing information on whether the threat simply exists online or may also exist in one's physical world. This feeling of not-knowing is pervasive and can drastically change how an individual engages in society.”
Samantha has also spoken about other specific psychological consequences of online abuse, including: a decreased ability to concentrate, difficulty in making day-to-day decisions and increased levels of anxiety.
Many of the women interviewed by Amnesty International during the course of this investigation spoke in detail about the negative psychological impact of online abuse and the consequences on their day-to-day lives.
For example, US writer Chelsea Cain told Amnesty International how she felt after experiencing abuse on Twitter and deciding to leave the platform,
“I was a wreck -- a total wreck. It feels bad enough to get just one hate tweet...that is why I had to detox from Twitter in the first place. It was a positive mental health choice. Like exercising more, or giving up smoking. A lifestyle decision. Ironically, the fact that I had the audacity to delete my account is what really set everyone off - that's when things escalated. It felt like I was under siege in every way. I was afraid to get on the computer, to talk to anybody. I was afraid of what I was going to find."
Similarly, UK Politician and activist Seyi Akiwowo also spoke about the harmful psychological impact a wave of abuse on Twitter had on her. She states,
“I felt overwhelmed. Looking back on it, I wasn’t okay. I was on auto-pilot and I didn’t take the time to do so some self-care. I was constantly on my phone checking [Twitter]. The support helped drown out the hate but I wasn’t sleeping well.”
US writer and blogger Alyssa Royse emphasized that even years after experiencing abuse on Twitter, she still feels apprehensive when receiving notifications on the platform,
“It felt scary going back online after the abuse I experienced. It was anxiety filled. If I see that I have a Twitter notification, I still get nervous, and its years later. It’s often just my friends making jokes with me but literally seeing that I have a Twitter notification makes me so nervous…So, I’m not sure that anxiety ever went away. It’s some form of social media PTSD. I laugh at it because it’s usually nothing but the feeling is very real”.
Other women spoke to Amnesty International about how the abuse they receive on Twitter can come in waves and can therefore leave them feeling unprepared when they do experience it. UK activist Alex Runswick explains,
“The abuse went on for months. I mean there was an immediate response to [my tweet], and I dealt with that. But a few weeks later I was on holiday and suddenly I had 25 notifications on my Twitter account and it was these people again. And that was what created anxiety for me because it was coming back repeatedly.”
Some women spoke specifically about what it felt like to have someone try to break them down via a social media platform.
UK journalist Vonny Moyes states,
“It’s almost as if sometimes people are using your emotional state as sport. That you’re just a leisure pursuit for them and they enjoy watching someone being slowly broken down by it. Sometimes there have been occasions where I’ve just burst into tears when I think about it. It’s ruined the enjoyment of the online sphere for me.”
US games developer Zoe Quinn also told Amnesty International about the toll online abuse had on her life,
“People online pushed me really hard to kill myself. My partner at the time didn’t leave my side for more than a few hours. For the first few days I couldn’t eat or sleep or drink water. All I could do was watch everything collapse around me. It was and it still is hard to get closer to new people [after going through that].”
UK actor and poet Travis Alabanza also spoke about becoming more guarded after experiencing abuse on Twitter and also described the overwhelming feeling of panic coming over them. They said,
“Panic was the overwhelming feeling; that the abuse will ruin all future job prospects. Then sadness was definitely there too. The hardest is when you’re tweeting stuff that’s irrelevant to trans issues and they still pop up…My friends have noticed a huge difference in me since. I’m way more nervous outside, I’m way more guarded about my protection. I don’t disclose as much with new people and when I meet new people I’m way more suspicious…”
Comics writer Kelly Sue DeConnick spoke to Amnesty International about her fear of the impact abuse on the platform could have on her family. She told us,
“What I fear is the kind of action that can be taken from behind a keyboard to jeopardize my safety or that of my family, our sense of well-being. …I fear my children or my husband losing time to anxiety or fear because I wouldn’t keep my mouth shut on the internet. I fear feeling like it’s my fault for speaking up. I understand how backwards that is, but it’s a real thought.”
Amnesty International’s online poll reflects many of the experiences brought forward by the women interviewed when they were asked how violence and abuse on Twitter makes them feel. Alarmingly, of the women polled across the 8 countries who experienced abuse or harassment on social media platforms, 41% of women said that on at least one occasion, these online experiences made them feel that their physical safety was threatened. In addition, between well over half to two-thirds of women (55% to 67%) polled in the UK and the USA who experienced abuse or harassment on social media platforms stated that they were less able to focus on everyday tasks, had experienced stress, anxiety or panic attacks, and had a feeling of apprehension when thinking about social media or receiving social media notifications.
Amnesty International’s online poll also found that across all countries surveyed, around 2/3 of women who experienced abuse or harassment on social media platforms stated feeling a sense of powerlessness after experiencing online abuse or harassment.
UK Science Broadcaster, Writer and Educator Dr Emily Grossman explained to Amnesty International how online abuse on Twitter took a toll on her self-confidence. She said,
“The abuse made me feel like I was an embarrassment, not a valid person, and that I don’t have valid opinions. It was disempowering and humiliating – it was a removal of my agency.”
US writer and blogger Imani Gandy told Amnesty International about the self-doubt she feels after receiving abuse on Twitter. She told us,
“It’s not fun, you get into this place where you think everybody hates me, what am I doing wrong? It definitely increased my anxiety and I’m already an anxious person. The first time someone called me n*gger on Twitter I literally cried…and then five minutes later I laughed. It’s just one of those things you get used to, at this point I am mostly used to it.”
Amnesty International’s research indicates that the psychological impact of online abuse is both real and harmful for women. Dr Emma Short, a psychologist and reader in cyber psychology at the University of Bedfordshire agrees. She explains,
“I think the impact of online abuse is greater because your victimization is broadcast for everyone to see. It’s often joined by a third party so the crowd or pack is going after you. So, very quickly, it feels as though the whole world is after you.There might be positive tweets, you might have lots of friends on the outside, but if the crowd has turned against you and is after you, it feels like the world wishes you harm.”
She also highlighted a study she conducted in 2010 on the impact of cyberstalking — that is, when a person is engaged in a persistent course of conducting online abuse that causes alarm, distress and fear to another person. She stated,
“A third of people who experienced cyber stalking and who were still online reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which is enduring and very rarely alleviates without professional support…. The fear described by people who have been cyberstalked is undoubtedly a very real fear.”
More research into the psychological impact of violence and abuse on Twitter, and social media platform more generally, is needed to further understand the full extent of the problem as well as the appropriate and adequate remedies required. However, it is clear that violence and abuse against women on Twitter risks contributing to psychological harms and this should undoubtedly be a serious cause for concern for the platform.