Twitter Is Toxic for Women, According to a New Amnesty International Report

It’s always a bad sign when a tech company admits that there’s a problem but refuses to release any data about it. And that’s certainly the case with Twitter and abuse.

Pretty much anyone who’s been on Twitter for more than 30 seconds knows that the platform is highly abusive, especially for women with a big public profile — and particularly in the case of women of color. But anecdotes aren’t data, so people have been calling on Twitter to be transparent about harassment and how the company plans to handle it.

Twitter hasn’t been forthcoming, so Amnesty International went ahead and commissioned a study on the climate of Twitter. The researchers focused specifically on women in journalism and politics, who tend to have high profiles that attract a lot of attention. The findings were not great — and data nerds can dig in on the methodology here.

In a cohort of 778 women studied over the course of 2017, Amnesty found 1.1 million abusive tweets — and these were identified with artificial intelligence, so some nuances may have been missed. It’s quite possible the real number was even higher. Women of color are much more likely to be targeted with abuse, and black women were 84 percent more likely to experience harassment than white women.

That statistic is grim, but if it’s too abstract, here’s another way to look at it: One in ten tweets sent to black women is abusive.

Amnesty looked at women from across the political spectrum, along with media organizations. Being liberal or conservative didn’t shield individuals from abuse.

Like any research, this isn’t definitive, and it does have shortcomings. The authors themselves note that results from this specific cohort can’t be generalized to everyone on Twitter — and that they were limited to the data available when they harvested tweets, which wouldn’t have included deleted tweets.

And while the report examined racialized abuse, it did not delve into disability or LGBTQ issues. Trans women in particular face systematic harassment on Twitter — including from trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERFs, who are extremely active in the UK and gaining ground in the U.S.

The study also focused specifically on abusive mentions, and it’s not clear whether they included the practice of quote-tweeting accounts with abusive commentary. It would have been even more challenging to identify accounts that use screenshots for harassment, another common tactic. Lack of access to data on Twitter’s end also made it impossible to search for people using false reports to harass people  — a frequent abuse tool among TERFs, who flag accounts as “abusive” for saying controversial things like “trans women are women.”

In a response to Amnesty International provided to Wired, Twitter disputed some of these findings and the methodology. The company also dropped its latest “transparency report,” which is, uh, not super transparent.

It doesn’t include much of the data Amnesty asks for, including specifics on how content is deemed inappropriate. I even have a stack of screenshots of people telling me to kill myself with paired “nothing wrong here” responses from Twitter to attest to some flaws in the company’s approach to this issue.

Twitter keeps saying that the company will improve its approach to combatting abuse. More transparency is certainly necessary, as is the development of better systems for identifying and removing problematic content — and avoiding false positives.

Moderating social media isn’t fun; in fact, it’s emotionally grueling and traumatic. So lots of companies, Twitter included, are using algorithms — but these are clearly falling short when it comes to protecting people from abuse and harassment.

Photo credit: Marco Verch/Creative Commons

49 comments

Emma L
Emma L9 days ago

thank you for sharing

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Shae Lee
Shae L12 days ago

Thanks for sharing

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Mia B
Mia B13 days ago

Thank you for sharing

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B B
B B14 days ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Daniel N
Daniel N16 days ago

TYFS

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danii p
danii p16 days ago

Thank you

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danii p
danii p16 days ago

Thank you

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Barbara I
Barbara Idso16 days ago

Social media is damaging for everyone. People trying to look like their lives are perfect. So sad...

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Jelka V
Jelka V16 days ago

Most toxic of all is the insecurity - or loneliness - driving people to expose themselves on social media in the first place.

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Barbara S
Barbara S17 days ago

Thank you

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