By Suzie Dunn

New research by Amnesty International demonstrates the egregious level of abuse and harassment women face on social media, particularly women leaders and women of colour, women from ethnic or religious minorities, lesbian, bisexual or transgender women, non-binary individuals, and women with disabilities. Dillon Black and Suzie Dunn of The eQuality Project had the opportunity to meet with Amnesty International’s Azmina Dhrodia while she was in Canada for RightsCon, an international conference focused on human rights in the digital age, to discuss this issue. Dhrodia is a researcher on Technology and Human Rights at Amnesty International where she investigates the human rights implications of online violence and harassment against women on social medial platforms. She has spearheaded reports including Unsocial media: A toxic place for women, and more recently #ToxicTwitter, that illuminate the experiences women have on social media platforms, and the ways in which abuse and harassment lead to the silencing of women’s voices.

#ToxicTwitter researchers conducted qualitative and quantitative research between December 2016 and March 2018, on women’s experiences on social media platforms, focusing on the nature and impact of the violence and abuse. They interviewed women and non-binary individuals from the United Kingdom and the United States who are influencers on Twitter, conducted focus groups with young women, spoke with experts on human rights in the digital age, and conducted a qualitative survey and poll across several countries to assess women’s experiences on Twitter. Dhrodia told The eQuality Project, “This research is important because for too long women’s experiences of violence and abuse on social media platforms have been ignored or women have been expected to just deal with it. This report demonstrates why violence and abuse against women online is a human rights issue. Women have the right to express themselves online equally, freely and without fear and Twitter must do much more to ensure its adequately meeting its human rights responsibilities.”

#ToxicTwitter’s findings reaffirmed what many women already know about interacting on social media platforms: “Twitter can be a toxic place for its female users.” The report acknowledges the value of social media spaces as a place for women to express themselves, connect with the greater world, and advocate for women’s rights, but when faced with violent and abusive attacks, it can drive women to self-censor and remove themselves from these important spaces for civic dialogue. Topics such as race and feminism could trigger attacks, and woman journalists and politicians faced significant abuse online in particular. Violent threats and misogynistic language were common and reporting the abuse to Twitter was inconsistent and largely ineffective. With this significant level of abuse and lack of response by Twitter, women experienced significant psychological harms. Amnesty’s research found that women reported feeling fear, stress, anxiety, panic attacks, powerlessness and a loss of confidence as a result of the abuse they experienced.

Toxic Twitter is a call to action, to demand that social media companies do better to protect their users from human rights violations. If you want to participate in helping make a change, Amnesty has launched Troll Patrol where crowd sourced volunteers are asked assess whether a Tweet is abusive, problematic or harmless so Amnesty can have the data they need to show what online abuse looks like and in the long-run help develop a machine learning program to detect abuse online. As Dhrodia says, “So far we’ve had almost 6,000 people help Amnesty classify over half a million tweets sent to female politicians and journalists. Together we can further understand the true nature and scale of violence abuse against women online and explore how machine learning can be used to detect such forms of abuse in the future.”