Can Twitter be beaten

Amnesty International: A despicable tweet against women every 30 seconds

What do you say to a woman who expresses her opinion on the internet? How about: “Would she finally shut up if you were to rape her?” Or maybe: “I'd rather hit you in the face with a hammer, you white-hating, racist bitch. Finally retire! "Or if you really want to argue with conviction:" Cut her damn throat, but torture her first. "

It is sentences like these that many women on Twitter are confronted with on a daily basis [real tweets, own translation]. The microblogging service, once described by a senior Twitter executive as the "free-speech wing of freedom of expression," has a problem. The platform is a breeding ground for inhuman tweets. Women in particular are a frequent target for these hate messages.

The human rights organization Amnesty International published two studies in 2018 in which it was qualitatively and quantitatively examined how female users are affected by the verbal attacks against them and calls on Twitter to finally take action. The second, quantitative part of the study appeared at the end of December.

Racist, homophobic and sexist comments

The numbers show a staggering confirmation of what Twitter users have often pointed out in the past. Many women are massively insulted and degraded on the platform. With the help of software, Amnesty initially generated a database for the investigation, which, according to its own information, ensured that there was no distortion.

The database comprised 288,000 tweets in which a total of 778 users were named (so-called mentions). The women named are politicians and journalists from the USA and Great Britain. All British women MPs and all women MPs in the US Congress and Senate were represented. The journalists named in the tweets write for papers with different political orientations, from Guardian to Breitbart.

The tweets were finally evaluated by over 6,500 volunteer supporters who, after a short training session, were able to work on the project online. In over seven percent of the examined tweets, content was found that is racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise inhuman. Projected, this result means that the 778 women whose accounts were examined receive over a million problematic or abusive messages per year - one every thirty seconds.

The study also clearly shows that not all women are affected equally. Non-white women are disproportionately worse affected by being confronted with contemptuous mentions than white users. For journalists from the right spectrum, for example from the Daily Mail, the Sun or Breitbart, it is much more likely to receive messages of hate than for left journalists. In the case of the analyzed accounts of women politicians, the situation is exactly the opposite: left-wing politicians are more likely to receive contemptuous mentions than right-wing politicians.

The problem has been known for a long time

The microblogging service Twitter, which was founded twelve years ago, always invoked the principle of freedom of expression when criticism of hate-promoting content was raised. It wasn't until 2015 that people began to admit mistakes. But it was mostly lip service. Former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo put it this way: "We sucked at dealing with trolls and abuse on this platform and we've been sucked at it for years." Twitter guidelines have been adapted and supplemented over time, but enforcement continues to fail. Horror stories like Lindy West's keep popping up. The New York Times columnist was insulted and gutted until she finally quit Twitter in early 2017.

The first part of the Amnesty study already contained explicit recommendations for action, which the organization clearly communicated to Twitter. Some of this was taken up: For the first time, Twitter's transparency report included more detailed figures on the enforcement of its own guidelines. A more open and detailed communication of the situation regarding the type and severity of violence and abuse against women on Twitter was one of Amnesty International's recommendations for action.

It is unclear whether the adaptation of the transparency report was a direct response to Amnesty International's recommendations for action. In the current study, however, the human rights organization points out that there is still a need for improvement. For example, there is currently no breakdown of the target groups against which reported and deleted tweets are primarily directed.

Hate messages lead to self-censorship

In the report published in March, Amnesty International clearly articulates the problem arising from the despicable environment for women on Twitter:

The violence and abuse that many women experience on Twitter negatively impacts their right to express themselves equally, freely and without fear. Instead of empowering women's voices, this violence and abuse that many women experience on the platform leads women to self-censor what they post, limit their interactions and even drive women off Twitter entirely . [Own translation]

In particular, tweets in which women express their own opinion were identified as triggers for insults and threats in the qualitative study. If women unsubscribe from Twitter in response to the hatred directed against them, the actors who spread scornful messages on the platform indirectly win. However, it can hardly be said that these users “give up”. The permanent psychological pressure to be humiliated every day for one's own opinion or simply one's own identity is hardly imaginable for those who are not affected.

If Twitter wants to be a platform for freedom of expression, the operators must see themselves as responsible for tackling this problem effectively. The recommendations for action from the Amnesty report can be a basis for this. Affected Twitter users only have a few self-defense methods until the long overdue course is set. This includes, for example, joining forces with other women and sharing block lists.

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About the author

Marie-Charlotte Matthes

Marie last studied business informatics in Berlin and supported us as an intern until January 2019. She is basically interested in everything first. However, it is particularly important to her that network policy issues are communicated in an understandable manner.
Published 01/10/2019 at 4:02 p.m.