Amnesty Int’l Report: Twitter’s Failure to Protect Women from Online Abuse Violates Human Rights Law

Amnesty International released a landmark report on its 16-month investigation of abuse of women in Twitter entitled “TOXIC TWITTER – A TOXIC PLACE FOR WOMEN,” which charges that Twitter’s failure to safeguard women on its platform is a human rights violation.

As the report explains:

[F]or many women, Twitter is a platform where violence and abuse against them flourishes, often with little accountability. 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 violence and abuse many women experience on Twitter has a detrimental effect on their 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.

Twitter Knows it Has a Problem . . .

It is not something that Twitter is unaware of.  The report quotes, former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo who explained:

We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years…We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day. I’m frankly ashamed of how poorly we’ve dealt with this issue during my tenure as CEO. It’s absurd. There’s no excuse for it.

Even current Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey acknowledges that

We see voices being silenced on Twitter every day. We’ve been working to counteract this for the past 2 years…We prioritized this in 2016. We updated our policies and increased the size of our teams. It wasn’t enough.

Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s General Counsel, noted the consequences of failing to protect victims of harassment:

Freedom of expression means little as our underlying philosophy if we continue to allow voices to be silenced because they are afraid to speak up.

.  . . But is Not Doing Enough to Address It

The report states that Twitter is not doing enough to address the problem.  Amnesty explains that under the United Nations (UN) Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, Twitter

has a responsibility to respect all human rights – including the rights to non-discrimination and freedom of expression and opinion – and to take concrete steps to avoid causing or contributing to abuses of those rights.  This includes taking action to identify, prevent, address and account for human rights abuses that are linked to its operations. Specifically, as part of its human rights due diligence, Twitter should be assessing – on an ongoing and proactive basis – how its policies and practices impact on users’ right to freedom of expression and opinion as well other rights, and take steps to mitigate or prevent any possible negative impacts. It is also critical that Twitter is transparent about its policies and practices and the steps it is taking to identify and address human rights abuses.

In addition, the report found reports of abuse are “often met with inaction and silence from the platform.”  A 2017 study reached a similar conclusion.  Gamergate target Zoe Quinn noted that she “gave up on reporting to Twitter a long time ago.”

The Abuse is Silencing Women’s Voices on Twitter

Protecting women from violence and abuse “enhances freedom of expression and allows women to participate on an equal basis in public life.”  On Twitter, however, women respond by adapting “their online behavior and presence, self-censoring the content they post and limiting interactions on the platform out of fear of violence and abuse.”

report by the National Democratic Institute explained the consequences of self-censorship.   ,

By silencing and excluding the voices of women and other marginalized groups, online harassment fundamentally challenges both women’s political engagement and the integrity of the information space….In these circumstances, women judge that the costs and danger of participation outweigh the benefits, and withdraw from or choose not to enter the political arena at all.

The Abuse Imposes Psychological Costs

Amnesty’s interviews and surveys found that women targeted for online abuse reported stress, anxiety, panic attacks, powerlessness and loss of confidence as a result.

Twitter Disputes Amnesty’s Findings

In a response to Amnesty, Twitter said that it “cannot delete hatred and prejudice from society”.

Abuse and hateful conduct directed at women, including direct threats of violence, and harassment, are prohibited on Twitter. We have made more than 30 individual changes to our product, policies and operations in the past 16 months, all with the goal of improving safety for everyone. We now take action on 10 times the number of abusive accounts as the same time last year.

Twitter, however, has refused to Amnesty’s request that it provide greater transparency and details on how they are addressing gender and other identity-based forms of abuse.