Amnesty puts numbers to what women have said for years: Twitter lets their abuse go unchecked

Women are abused every 30 seconds on Twitter: Amnesty International
The human rights foundation and Element AI, a global artificial intelligence software product company, surveyed millions of “problematic” tweets received by 778 journalists and politicians from the U.K. and U.S. in 2017.

This week, Amnesty International released a “Troll Patrol” report, lending human rights’ muscle to an issue women have been highlighting for years: online abuse.

The results of the crowdsourced study, which analyzes a two-year catalogue of millions of Tweets, are revealing. On average, Amnesty found a problematic or abusive Tweet is sent to a woman every 30 seconds.

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“We have the data to back up what women have long been telling us — that Twitter is a place where racism, misogyny and homophobia are allowed to flourish basically unchecked,” said Milena Marin, senior advisor for tactical research at Amnesty International, in a release.

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Women — black women in particular — have continually highlighted the vitriol and harassment they face online and the struggle to get companies like Twitter and Facebook to take action. Now, there’s research backing up their experience. Amnesty volunteers analyzed millions of Tweets and classified seven per cent of those sent to the women studied as problematic or abusive. Women of colour were 34 per cent more likely to be the target of abuse, while black women shoulder a disproportionate amount of the risk and are 84 per cent more likely than white women to suffer abuse via Twitter.

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“This is the language we’ve been looking for,” said Sidrah Ahmad, senior coordinator of the anti-gender-based violence program at the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants.

Terms like bullying and trolling are often used to dismiss the repercussions of this type of abuse, Ahmad said, a way of saying ‘quit being so sensitive.’

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“I think the language of human rights violation starts to capture what’s truly happening.”

People get very fixated on the question of freedom of speech generally without seeming to realize that this type of online trolling has an impact on women’s freedom of speech, she said. Ahmad has been subjected to rape threats for speaking out and has been told that as a Muslim woman she should know her place and “why don’t you go be abused?”

Now, she said, she pauses to make an informed decision about whether she should actually weigh in online on some issues.”What are the repercussions?” Ahmad will ask herself. Sometimes, fearing the rape threats and the possible doxxing, she won’t Tweet and as a result, “I’m being silenced.”

While the human rights framing is helpful, Rania El Mugammar said it’s frustrating to watch people respond to these types of reports with surprise.

“This report is not saying anything that we haven’t said before,” said El Mugammar, an artist and anti-oppression consultant. “I’m not sure if it helps in the actual experiences of black women online.”

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Yes, it provides evidence if social media companies do decide to change how they monitor abuse levels, she said, “but largely those spaces are replicas of the world around us and the world around us is not safe for black women.”

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Adora Nwofor, a comedian and activist, echoed that thought.

“I think that people know that it’s a human rights issue, I think that people don’t care,” she said.

“Due to racism and anti-blackness it has become so ingrained in our culture, in our everyday interactions that people are numb to it and until they start caring about black and brown bodies it’s going to continue to happen.”

Among the tweets Amnesty analyzed are ones threatening rape, others threatening murder, and still more outlining the senders’ hopes the woman will need emergency services and nobody will come to help her.

“Hey wh*re,” wrote one person, “You should disappear while you still can. You’re pretty easy to find.”

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Amnesty sorted through 2.2 million tweets directed at nearly 800 women politicians and journalists in the U.S. and U.K. The organization notes that while the abuse and harassment was prevalent no matter an individual’s political leaning, it could differ for people in other lines of work.

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If your reaction to the report is surprise, Nwofor said, take a minute.

“Their shock, which is a little bit of discomfort, is our every day,” she said.

“Every day we are shocked and uncomfortable and if this does not propel you to take explicit action that people can see and measure then you are not shocked, you are complicit.”

Amnesty also took aim at Twitter, which recently updated its hateful conduct policy. While Amnesty applauded the step — it specifically recognizes women of colour, LGBTQ+ people, and historically underrepresented communities as targets for abuse — it was critical of Twitter’s refusal to make public “meaningful and comprehensive data regarding the scale and nature of abuse on their platform, as well as how they are addressing it.”

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People need to realize that Twitter, as well as Facebook and Instagram, are private, for-profit companies, Ahmad said, not quite the public spaces we seem to see them as.

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“There needs to be a lot more accountability to the platform because they don’t have a strong incentive to clamp down on this stuff,” she said. “I hope this report contributes to that.”

El Mugammar is less optimistic.

“If it helps two per cent of these prove-it-to-me jerks reflect on the fact that this is evidence [of abuse], then yeah it’s cool. But largely an organization like Amnesty is going to get dismissed by these trolls.”