Women abused on Twitter every thirty seconds

Posted by
Emily Reynolds

The study shows the shocking extent of misogyny

The fact that women are abused online isn’t news: we already know how prevalent it is, and many of us will have been subject to abuse ourselves. 

But a new study from Amnesty International has revealed the shocking extent of online misogyny on social media platform Twitter. 

In a year long analysis of tweets sent to female politicians and journalists, it found 1.1 million “abusive or problematic” messages – an average of one every thirty seconds. 

6,500 women signed up to take part in Amnesty’s project, which they called “Troll Patrol”. Volunteers then sorted through 228,000 tweets sent to 778 women politicians and journalists – and, using this information “machine learning techniques were used to extrapolate data about the scale of abuse women face on Twitter”. 

Volunteers dedicated 2,500 hours analysing the tweets – the equivalent of 18 months of full time work.

An abusive tweet would be categorised as one that actively violates Twitter’s own terms of service – threats of physical or sexual violence or racist language, for example. Problematic tweets are those that contain “hurtful or hostile content” but that nevertheless do not quite reach the threshold of abuse. 

Racism was a huge factor. Black women were “disproportionately targeted”, the research found, being “84% more likely to be mentioned in abusive or problematic tweets”. One in fifteen tweets were abusive about white women; this rose to one in ten for black women. Abuse was fairly consistent across the political spectrum, though left-leaning politicians were 23% more likely to receive abusive or problematic mentions than right-leaning peers.

Woman on social media on her phone.

Milena Martin, Amnesty International’s Senior Advisor for Tactical Research, described the research as “the world’s largest crowdsourced dataset about online abuse against women”. 

“We found that, although abuse is targeted at women across the political spectrum, women of colour were much more likely to be impacted, and black women are disproportionately targeted. Twitter’s failure to crack down on this problem means it is contributing to the silencing of already marginalised voices,” she said. 

“By crowdsourcing research, we were able to build up vital evidence in a fraction of the time it would take one Amnesty researcher, without losing the human judgement which is so essential when looking at context around tweets.

“Troll Patrol isn’t about policing Twitter or forcing it to remove content. We are asking it to be more transparent, and we hope that the findings from Troll Patrol will compel it to make that change. Crucially, Twitter must start being transparent about how exactly they are using machine learning to detect abuse, and publish technical information about the algorithms they rely on.”

And Kate Allen, director of Amnesty UK, said that the results show that there’s a “staggering level of violence and abuse against women” on Twitter. “These results back up what women have long been saying – that Twitter is endemic with racism, misogyny and homophobia,” she said.

“The online space is an important platform for political and public conversation, and women must feel safe to express themselves and engage in debate without fear of abuse. Twitter is failing to be transparent about the extent of the problem, but if our volunteers can gather meaningful data about online violence and abuse, so can Twitter. The company must take concrete steps to properly protect women’s rights on the platform.”

Twitter says that abusive content violates their rules, but asked Amnesty if it could clarify the definition of ‘problematic’ “in accordance with the need to protect free expression and ensure policies are clearly and narrowly drafted” – a response that will not surprise those who have faced abuse on the platform. 

Amnesty has called on the platform to improve its reporting structures.

“We are experiencing a watershed moment with women around the world using their collective power to speak out about the abuse they face and amplify their voices through social media platforms,” it says.

“However, Twitter’s failure to effectively tackle violence and abuse on the platform has a chilling effect on freedom of expression online and undermines women’s mobilisation for equality and justice – particularly groups of women who already face discrimination and marginalisation.”

Images: Unsplash


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Emily Reynolds

Emily Reynolds is a journalist and author based in London. Her first book, A Beginner’s Guide to Losing Your Mind, came out in February 2017 with Hodder & Stoughton. She is currently working on her second.  

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