Cyberbullying is not a new phenomenon and, over the past decade, trolling has become an integral part of everyone’s experience online. However, for human rights NGO Amnesty International, the issue isn’t just the bullies or the trolls: it’s Twitter. This year’s international campaign, #ToxicTwitter, seeks to raise awareness around the toxicity of the platform – and to hold the company accountable.
According to Azmina Dhrodia, Amnesty International’s researcher on technology and human rights and the author of the NGO’s newly released Toxic Twitter report, there were three distinct reasons for choosing Twitter as the cornerstone for their campaign. First, its popularity; second, its unique nature as a “social platform that encourages debate and conversation amongst mostly strangers” which often leads to massive online witchhunts and third, its standing as the worst place to be online as a woman.
“Almost every single woman we interviewed said that of all the abuse they receive, the worst is on Twitter and it was also the platform they felt was doing the least to address the issue,” Dhrodia told the Times in an interview this week.
ABUSE, HARASSMENT, THREATS
Toxic Twitter showcases findings from qualitative and quantitative research conducted over 16 months, including interviews with 86 women and non-binary people of different backgrounds across the United States and the United Kingdom. It also features an Ipsos MORI poll of 500 women aged 18–55 in eight countries: on average, 23 percent had experienced online abuse or harassment. The report outlines the different types of abuse that can occur on Twitter, and a quarter of the women interviewed across the eight countries had received threats of physical or sexual assault.
Amongst the plethora of resulting psychological harm, almost two-thirds of women said that they felt “apprehensive” when thinking about using social media (or even receiving a notification) after experiencing abuse, while half felt they were less able to focus on everyday tasks.
“One thing that runs through the whole issue, alongside protecting defenders of human rights, is freedom of expression. Gendered violence has impacts beyond this, but [online abuse] impacts public debate and plurality of voices by limiting freedom of expression because it leads to self-censorship,” said Mariana Marques, director of international politics and justice at Amnesty International Argentina.
Reactions to abuse include fighting back, self-censorship, leaving social media entirely and, in some cases, even moving cities due to death threats. Dhrodia recommends reacting “as one sees fit,” but “just because there’s abuse on the platform doesn’t mean I have to see it.”
“There are security and privacy settings that exist so you don’t have to see the abuse,” suggests Dhrodia. “I think there’s a lot more we can do to keep ourselves safe but that also requires Twitter to empower us to do so and make sure we know how, because most of those safety measures aren’t made clear.”
Although Twitter has made policy changes in an attempt to tackle these issues, the firm have not provided information on their implementation, allocated resources, the number of abuse reports they receive, how long they take to respond or how they train moderators to respond (nor in what regions and languages they are available). In addition, Twitter has stated that it disagrees with the overall premise put forth by the NGO that they are violating human rights.
GENDER IDENTITIES AND INTERSECTIONALITY
It should be noted that the subjects of the investigation weren’t solely cisgender women: transgender and non-binary gender identities are referenced and analysed throughout, although this has not been the focus of media coverage on the issue.
“It was really important for Amnesty to include transwomen’s voices and non-binary voices because we need to acknowledge that non-binary people – especially those who are femme-presenting – are experiencing the same manifestation of violence, discrimination and abuse that women experience because they’re not conforming to gender norms. To not include them is doing a disservice to the research,” explained Dhrodia.
“I think the media has focused on women because it’s easier, unfortunately,” she continued.
This leads to one of the main points of the report: the intersectionality of abuse. Women and non-binary people who have multiple identities – based on elements like religion, ethnicity, class, ability or sexuality – tend to suffer overlapping abuse that targets all of these elements. For example, a middle-class, Muslim journalist would receive a different level of abuse than a disabled, lesbian politician: in each case, they would face additional discrimination due to factors aside from their gender.
Amnesty International Argentina is beginning to outline the methodology for its own national report. As a result, Marques told the Times that it was too early to comment on the impact of intersectional abuse in Argentina specifically, but that Amnesty was in contact with marginalised groups in the elaboration of the upcoming report.
“One of our major motivations for starting our own report was seeing how episodes of violence, aggressions and abuse intensified during the discussion surrounding legalising abortion, particularly towards women,” said Marques.
She explained that although they haven’t identified specific triggers of abuse, the discussion about legalising abortion had heightened Twitter attacks in general.
The organisation did publish an Argentine report in March about online abuse, but without focusing on gendered violence. Using data from 2017, the investigation covered some 354,000 tweets directed at just 11 Twitter users (nine journalists and two political activists).
“We identified that there are concerted attacks with the participation of trolls, robots and other actors. [Attacks] happen mostly when some actors express that they are against the government: this was at a time of intense arguments over human rights, rooted specifically in the disappearance of Santiago Maldonado,” explained Marques.
And what about their own use of Twitter and their own experiences online?
Neither Dhrodia or Marques receive a notable amount of abuse online because they purposefully use the platform sparingly.
However, Dhrodia mentioned the risk assessments she made before publishing the investigation because she “fit many of those identities” that trigger the intersectional abuse it analyses. In addition, she deleted the Twitter app from her phone in the aftermath of this report, which received a lot of backlash that described Amnesty International and her personally that, amongst other things, described them as “triggered whiny bitches.”
“I use it, but with caution, because it doesn’t have my trust yet as a user and a woman of colour. They have a responsibility to respect human rights and until they do so fully, I will not use their platform fully,” she explains.
SEARCHING FOR SOLUTIONS
So what can be done to solve these problems? In the end, it comes down to Twitter being more transparent: many of the solutions recommended by Amnesty depend on it.
“At the moment most of our recommendations are ‘you have your own set of rules, enforce them consistently and tell us how you’re doing it,’” outlined Dhrodia.
However, telling women to “just leave” Twitter when faced with abuse is definitely not on the organisation’s list of suggestions.
“Women have the right to be on Twitter and to freely express themselves without fear of violence. By saying ‘just go offline,’ we’re not addressing the core human rights issue and [we’re] putting the onus on the woman to do something about the situation, versus the company that is failing to deal with the problem,” said Dhrodia.
“Do I think we can have a safer, freer Twitter? I don’t think that it will be free of all forms of abuse because we live in a society where this violence and abuse thrive offline. But I hope so.”