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Women abused on Twitter every 30 seconds - new study

New research reveals the staggering level of abuse against women journalists and politicians from the UK and US on Twitter last year

Largest ever study into online abuse against women

'These results back up what women have long been saying – that Twitter is endemic with racism, misogyny and homophobia' - Kate Allen 

1.1 million abusive or problematic tweets were sent to women last year - an average of one every 30 seconds - Amnesty International revealed today (17 December), as it as it released a ground-breaking study into abuse against women politicians and journalists from the UK and US on Twitter.

More than 6,500 volunteers from 150 countries signed up to take part in Amnesty’s 'Troll Patrol', a unique crowdsourcing project designed to process large-scale data about online abuse. Volunteers sorted through 228,000 tweets sent to 778 women politicians and journalists in the UK and USA in 2017. Using this information, machine learning techniques were then used to extrapolate data about the scale of abuse that women face on Twitter.

The study, conducted with Element AI - a global artificial intelligence software product company - found that of the 778 women surveyed:

  • black women were disproportionately targeted, being 84% more likely than white women to be mentioned in abusive or problematic tweets. One in ten tweets mentioning black women was abusive or problematic, compared to one in fifteen for white women;
  • 7.1% of tweets sent to the women in the study were problematic or abusive. This amounts to 1.1 million tweets;
  • black and minority ethnic women were 34% more likely to be mentioned in abusive or problematic tweets than white women;
  • online abuse against women cuts across the political spectrum. Politicians and journalists faced similar levels of online abuse and we observed both liberals and conservatives alike, as well as left and right leaning media organisations, were affected.

Politicians included in the sample came from across the US and UK political spectrums. The journalists included were from a diverse range of US and UK publications including The Daily Mail, The New York Times, Guardian, The Sun, gal-dem, Pink News and Breitbart.

Milena Marin, Amnesty International’s Senior Advisor for Tactical Research, said:

“With the help of technical experts and thousands of volunteers, we have built the world’s largest crowdsourced dataset about online abuse against women.

“We found that, although abuse is targeted at women across the political spectrum, women of colour were much more likely to be impacted, and black women are disproportionately targeted. Twitter’s failure to crack down on this problem means it is contributing to the silencing of already marginalised voices.

“By crowdsourcing research, we were able to build up vital evidence in a fraction of the time it would take one Amnesty researcher, without losing the human judgement which is so essential when looking at context around tweets.

“Troll Patrol isn’t about policing Twitter or forcing it to remove content. We are asking it to be more transparent, and we hope that the findings from Troll Patrol will compel it to make that change. Crucially, Twitter must start being transparent about how exactly they are using machine learning to detect abuse, and publish technical information about the algorithms they rely on.”

Element AI used the data gathered in Troll Patrol to develop a machine learning model of an app which attempts to automatically detect abusive tweets. 

Julien Cornebise, Element AI’s Head of the London office and AI For Good’s Director of Research, said:

“This study is part of a long-term partnership between Amnesty and Element AI. Taking a sober approach to AI, we make long-term commitments, dedicating our technical experts and tools to enable social good actors to do what they do best.”

Amnesty has repeatedly asked Twitter to publish data regarding the scale and nature of abuse on their platform, but so far the company has failed to do so. This hides the extent of the problem and makes it difficult to design effective solutions.

Kate Allen, Amnesty UK’s Director, said:

“It’s clear that a staggering level of violence and abuse against women exists on Twitter. These results back up what women have long been saying – that Twitter is endemic with racism, misogyny and homophobia.

“The online space is an important platform for political and public conversation, and women must feel safe to express themselves and engage in debate without fear of abuse.

“Twitter is failing to be transparent about the extent of the problem, but if our volunteers can gather meaningful data about online violence and abuse, so can Twitter. The company must take concrete steps to properly protect women’s rights on the platform.”

Twitter’s response

Abusive content violates Twitter’s own rules and includes tweets that promote violence against or threaten people based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or serious disease. Problematic content is defined as content that is hurtful or hostile, especially if repeated to an individual on multiple or cumulative occasions, but not as intense as an abusive tweet.

Amnesty shared its findings with Twitter. In response, Twitter requested clarification on the definition of “problematic” “in accordance with the need to protect free expression and ensure policies are clearly and narrowly drafted.”

Troll Patrol volunteers collectively dedicated an incredible 2,500 hours analysing tweets - the equivalent of someone working full-time for 1.5 years.

For full methodology please see the interactive web page

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