A woman receives a toxic tweet every 30 seconds. That’s just one of the findings from a global Amnesty International study. Using 6,500 volunteers as a ‘Troll Patrol’, its findings confirmed what many women have known for a long time — “that Twitter is a place where racism, misogyny and homophobia are allowed to flourish basically unchecked”.
It’s not just Twitter, according to academic (and sister of Mark) Donna Zuckerberg. Her own research suggests that social media has “elevated misogyny to entirely new levels of violence and virulence”.
If you’re a prominent woman, or even just an outspoken one, you’ll probably know this already. From England footballer Karen Carney to Brexit challenger Gina Miller, who express strong opinions are likely to be bombarded with astonishing malice online. It is sometimes so violent it results in arrests.
It’s not so much that women are the only victims of online abuse. It’s more to do with the nature of that abuse. A University of Salford study of how MPs are treated on Twitter found that, while men and women both attracted criticism, female MPs were more likely to be the victims of hate speech and physical threats.
A previous Amnesty poll found that one in five women had suffered abuse online, and 27 per cent were threatened with sexual or physical assault.
Yet there are limits to what is being done. Initiatives such as ReclaimtheInternet, launched a couple of years ago, are a positive force, but they clearly aren’t enough.
There is now a concern that younger women may opt out of social media entirely, which would only feed the cycle of exclusion. Or they’ll water down their views to avoid attracting trolls — again, taking a step backwards from progress.
But I don’t think women are so easily put off. For all the malice being spewed online, there is little indication that women are self-censoring or stepping off altogether.
And the collective support they’ve received online reinforces some of the very real benefits of sticking with social media platforms. Social media has done so much for women worldwide. So-called ‘hashtag activism’ has amplified voices and highlighted issues that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. This has led to some real-world changes. You only have to look at the #MeToo movement for evidence of how powerful this can be.
Social media platforms are also, of course, major resource centres for, say, women who want to start up a business. From networking to funding to finding new customers, social media has opened doors for women that might otherwise have remained shut.
Do we need to do something about the rising tide of toxicity online? Yes, but let’s not abandon social media altogether. That could set women back 40 years.
So what could we do?
Cyber-bullying is viewed as an ‘emerging threat’ around the world — and should be given due consideration on leadership agendas.
Government pressure is starting to increase: at the G7 summit earlier this year, UK Prime Minister Theresa May demanded social media platforms take the issue more seriously.
Now, the UK government is looking at tougher laws and sanctions to protect people from racist and sexist threats online.
We must also accept our role as individuals, and how easily a careless remark can mutate online. “Whether it’s Twitter pile-ons, Instagram call-outs, Snapchat screen grabs or Facebook feuding, there is no platform [that is] sacred. Bitchiness is the new norm. Criticism is king,” writes Regina Lavelle in the Irish Independent.
If women are, indeed, the more active users of many social platforms, this is definitely a comment we should take to heart. We need to be open to hearing opposing views online — it’s possible to express an opposing view online without resorting to name-calling. Sometimes that means just taking a beat before responding: simply reading your remarks aloud before hitting ‘return’, for example.
Business could also do more. Whatever your industry, why not help educate employees on best practice?
Perhaps it’s too idealistic, but wouldn’t it be great if Big Tech firms could park their competitiveness to collaborate on a practical plan — a code of conduct and tools to enforce, support, even reward good behaviour?
More realistically, I think Amnesty is onto something with its Troll Patrol. Removing subjectivity by using AI, and combining it with volunteering might just bring back the wisdom of the crowd.