#ToxicTwitter and the silencing of women online

Social media allows people around the world to express themselves by debating, networking and sharing information. Yet, in 2018, women have been increasingly vocal about a particular threat to their right to freedom of expression on social media platforms: the proliferation of violence and abuse online.

Self-censorship

Many women who spoke to Amnesty International as part of our research on this issuesaid that violence and abuse flourish on the social media platform Twitter, often with little accountability. 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, these experiences lead women to self-censor what they post and limit their interactions online. In some cases, it drives women away from 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 is failing to adequately respect human rights and effectively tackle violence and abuse on its platform. This means that, instead of women using their voices to create change in the world, many are instead being pushed backwards towards a culture of silence.

23% of women polled in 8 countries have experienced online abuse or harassment

Violence and abuse against women on Twitter takes various forms, including direct or indirect threats of physical or sexual violence; abuse targeting one or more aspects of a woman’s identity, such as racism or transphobia; targeted harassment; privacy violations such as doxing (uploading private identifying information publicly to cause alarm or distress); and the sharing of sexual or intimate images of a woman without her consent. The aim of this violence and abuse is to create a hostile online environment for women with the goal of shaming, intimidating, degrading, belittling and ultimately silencing them.

This year, Amnesty International acted to address this dangerous trend which threatens the ability of women to participate freely in the public realm. Amnesty’s report #ToxicTwitter: Violence and abuse against women onlinefound that women are targeted with violence and abuse on Twitter for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is for speaking out about certain – often feminist – issues. Sometimes it is because they are public figures. Although people of all genders can experience violence and abuse online, the abuse experienced by women is often sexist or misogynistic in nature, and online threats of violence against women are often sexualized and include specific references to women’s bodies. Women who experience multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination offline often find that violence and abuse online also targets their different identities. Non-binary people can also face targeted and misogynistic abuse online for not conforming to gender norms.

Twitter’s policies on hateful conduct and abuse are designed to provide guidance and clarity on which behaviours the company deems acceptable on the platform. However, although Twitter’s “hateful conduct policy” covers many forms of abuse that affect women’s rights, it means little for women on Twitter if such policies are not consistently enforced in practice. Many women told Amnesty International that when they report abuse on Twitter it is often met with inaction and silence from the company. One of the most pernicious impacts of the combination of inaction and inconsistency in responding to reports of abuse is the detrimental effect this has on women reporting such experiences in the future. Women who are the targets of abuse bear the burden of reporting it. This not only takes time, but also takes an emotional toll on women. When women have – or hear of other people having – negative experiences reporting abuse to Twitter, they are less likely to undertake the effort of reporting it.

Twitter should be assessing, on an ongoing and proactive basis, how its policies and practices affect users’ rights to freedom of expression and opinion as well as other rights, and taking steps to mitigate or prevent any possible negative impact. 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.

Despite some improvements, Twitter is failing to adequately meet its responsibility to respect human rights in the context of violence and abuse against women on its platform. The steps it has taken are not sufficient to tackle the scale and nature of the problem.

Women have the right to live free from discrimination and violence. They also have the right to freely express themselves, both online and offline. Twitter’s policies and practices clearly fail to respect these rights.

Ensuring that everyone can freely participate online and without fear of violence and abuse is vital to ensuring the effective exercise of the right to freedom of expression. The silencing and censoring impact of violence and abuse against women on Twitter can have far-reaching and harmful repercussions on how women, particularly younger women and those from marginalized communities, fully exercise their right to participate in public life and freely express themselves online for years to come.

In 2019 Twitter, as a company, must act on its responsibility to respect all human rights – including the rights to non-discrimination and freedom of expression and opinion. It must demonstrate that it hears the voices of women, and take concrete steps to avoid causing or contributing to abuses of those rights. This includes acting to identify, prevent, address and account for human rights abuses that are linked to its operations.

Violence and abuse against women on this scale can be ended. Twitter, first and foremost, must enforce its own policies on hateful conduct and abuse. Although the company states that it “doesn’t tolerate behaviour that harasses, intimidates or uses fear to silence another person’s voice”, this is exactly what is happening to many women who use its platform.

Twitter should publicly share comprehensive and meaningful information about the nature and levels of violence and abuse against women, as well as other groups, on the platform, and how the company responds to it.

It must improve its reporting mechanisms to ensure consistent application of its own rules and a better response to complaints of violence and abuse.

Finally, Twitter should provide more clarity about how it interprets and identifies violence and abuse on the platform and how it handles reports of such abuse. It should undertake far more proactive measures in educating users and raising awareness about security and privacy features on the platform that will help women enjoy a safer, and less toxic Twitter experience.

Continued inaction by Twitter in 2019 would effectively be silencing women. Twitter must therefore undertake, with urgency, these concrete steps to tackle the problem once and for all.