Twitter Harassment of Woman Journalists and Politicians Happens Every 30 Seconds, Study Finds

The study by Amnesty International is purportedly the largest ever to examine the way women are harassed online at this scale.

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Dec 18 2018, 6:21pm

There have been several times in my career when I’ve had to turn my phone off to stop it from overheating from Twitter notifications—all spewing vitriol about something I’ve written, ranging from telling me I’m an embarrassment to journalism to saying I should die, and almost always peppered with derogatory slurs against women. I keep a separate “hate mail” folder for emails where I file things away neatly (just in case someone doesn’t believe I actually get them, or if they contain actual threats), but the direct messages and mentions on Twitter keep coming in a spray.

A new study by Amnesty International found that women—specifically, female politicians and journalists—were abused every 30 seconds on Twitter in 2017. If that sounds like a lot, rest assured that it also feels like a lot.

The study is purportedly the largest ever examining the way women are harassed online. Amnesty and the artificial intelligence software company Element AI recruited 6,500 volunteers from 150 countries to sort through 288,000 tweets sent to 778 women politicians and journalists in the UK and USA, all within 2017. The journalists were working at a diverse array of publications, including the Daily Mail, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Sun, GalDem, Pink News, and Breitbart.

They found that more than 1 million "abusive or problematic tweets" were sent to the women in the study over that year—about one tweet every 30 seconds.

Amnesty and Element AI looked at two types of tweets: “abusive,” defined as violating Twitter’s own rules and promoting violence against or threats toward people based on their race, gender, and other factors; and “problematic,” which they defined as “hurtful or hostile content, especially if repeated to an individual on multiple or occasions, but do not necessarily meet the threshold of abuse.”

They also found that black women were 84 percent more likely than white women to be mentioned in abusive or problematic tweets. And the abuse was bipartisan: Liberals, conservatives, and women at left- and right-leaning media organizations all faced similar harassment.

Amnesty International has previously said that Twitter has refused its requests for reporting on harassment on its platform. “As a company, Twitter is failing in its responsibility to respect women’s rights online by inadequately investigating and responding to reports of violence and abuse in a transparent manner,” the organization wrote in March in its “Toxic Twitter” study, which included a broad overview of how people use and are abused on the platform, as well as commentary from high-profile users.

In September, in a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on alleged censorship of conservatives, Colorado Congresswoman Diana DeGette cited Amnesty International’s “Toxic Twitter” study and pressed Dorsey on whether his company has demographic-based data on abuse.

“We do have data on all violations that we have seen across the platform and the context of those violations,” Dorsey replied. “And we do intend, and this will be an initiative this year, to create a transparency report that will make that data more public so that all can learn from it and we can be held public accountable.”

Last week, Twitter and Dorsey appear to have followed through on this promise, and published the platform’s biannual Transparency Report—this time including detailed statistics on reporting and enforcement of Twitter’s rules. More than 6 million unique accounts were reported for possible rule violations from January to June 2018, according to the report, with 5,461 of those accounts reported by known government entities.

My own experience with harassment online is not unique, and it is very far from the worst malice women receive online. Women talk about how badly themselves and other women are treated online all the time; few of us would be surprised at these findings.

Many, if not a majority, of reporters covering toxic online culture are women, and are being paid less than their male counterparts. The fact that we’re still here, reporting on this shit, is a testament to the tenacity of female journalists. But we shouldn’t have to deal with this to do our jobs.

At least now we have some numbers to prove it.