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Girls & Women

These High-Profile Women Are Calling on Twitter to Crack Down on ‘Toxic’ Abuse

Twitter is a platform that is meant to empower everyone to raise their voice. 

But, for many women, the online experience is tarnished by abuse and harassment that can even amount to threats of death and sexual violence. 

Now, women from across public-facing careers have joined forces with Amnesty International to call on Twitter to find a solution and to crack down on the abuse. 

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Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, is one of those lending her voice to the #ToxicTwitter campaign — which comes on the 12th anniversary of the first tweet being sent. 

“What makes me angry when I read that kind of abuse about me is I worry it is putting the next generation of young women off politics,” she told Amnesty. 

“So I feel a responsibility to challenge it not so much on my own behalf, but on behalf of young women out there who are looking at what people say about me and thinking they don’t want to ever be in that position,” she said. 

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For Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, being gay meant she was targeted by homophobic abuse as well, which made her feel “hunted” online. 

“I have a lot of young gay followers on my Twitter, and for me it’s important to call that out,” she said. “Just because you’re saying something on a keyboard and not to someone’s face doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter — it does and it can have a huge impact on people.” 

Meanwhile, former leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Kezia Dugdale, said she had reported three online death threats to police. One said she should be “bayoneted.” 

But she said another form of abuse that is also damaging is the wave of messages implying female politicians are “daft wee lassies.” 

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“If I were to show you my Twitter mention column just now, 90% of it would be abuse,” she said. "I have to look at that every time to scroll through the good stuff trying to find those people who are genuinely trying to engage on an issue or ask a question about the substance on something you’ve raised in the Scottish Parliament.”

Amnesty’s campaign, launched on Wednesday, argues that Twitter has become a toxic place for women, and includes a report featuring interviews with more than 80 women. As well as misogyny, the report highlights to racist, transphobic, and homophobic abuse that is an everyday reality for many people on the platform. 

While the campaign centres on the high-profile women who most often find themselves targets — including politicians, journalists, and activists — it also emphasises that women and girls “who simply want to know what’s happening around them” also come under fire, particularly when using hashtags relating to sexism or campaigns. 

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“For many women, Twitter is a platform where violence and abuse against them flourishes, often with little accountability,” said Amnesty in a statement. “As a company, Twitter is failing in its responsibility to respect women’s rights online and inadequately investigating and responding to reports of violence and abuse in a transparent manner.” 

It added that online abuse has a “detrimental effect on [women’s] right to express themselves equally, freely, and without fear.” 

“Instead of strengthening women’s voices, the violence and abuse many women experience on the platform leads women to self-censor what they post, limit their interactions, and even drives women off Twitter completely,” it added. 

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Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, is also lending her voice to the campaign. She said that, even early in the project, she received around 200 abusive messages every day — including detailed, graphic, and explicit descriptions of rape and domestic violence. 

“We are seeing young women and teenage girls experiencing online harassment as a normal part of their existence online,” she said. “It’s an invisible issue right now, but it might be having a major impact on the future political participation of those girls and young women.”

“We won’t necessarily see the outcome of that before it’s too late,” she added. 

Miski Noor, who manages the Black Lives Matter Twitter page, described feeling “tired” of technology companies and social media companies “thinking they are exempt from living their values.” 

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“If Twitter values women and femmes, if they value our safety, then they need to have practices that they actually develop and implement in real ways that will protect us,” Noor said. 

According to Amnesty, the levels of abuse online threaten to hold back the success of women’s rights movements like #TimesUp and #MeToo, because it means many women fear speaking out publicly. 

Twitter said it doesn’t agree with Amnesty’s conclusions, reported the BBC

It said it “cannot delete hatred and prejudice from society” and had made more than 30 changes in the past 16 months, in an effort to improve safety. That includes ramping up the number of actions taken against abusive tweets.

Global Citizen campaigns to achieve the UN’s Global Goals, which include action for gender inequality. You can join us by taking action here. In the run-up to the Commonwealth Summit, held in London in April, we’re calling on Commonwealth leaders to take action on gender equality, poverty, disease, and nutrition. You can join us by taking action to earn a free ticket to see Emeli Sandé, Professor Green, Naughty Boy, Gabrielle Aplin, and more, live at the O2 Academy Brixton. Click here to find out more