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What happens when women report abuse on Twitter

It's time for Twitter to address its harassment politics.


S.E. Smith


Posted on Aug 21, 2014   Updated on May 30, 2021, 5:49 pm CDT

If you believe the media, this week has opened a critical discussion about abuse on social media, specifically on Twitter, in the wake of Zelda Williams’ public statements about leaving the service due to bullying. Did you know that sometimes people are mean on Twitter? Why gosh, Gladys, I had no idea.

Oh, wait, except for the 4,387 times this has already come up. On the service since 2010, I’ve personally experienced the brunt of Twitter abuse from people angry at me for everything from pushing for intersectional evaluations of social issues to daring to criticize St. Whedon. We’re talking rape and death threats—which are also nothing new to people like Anita Sarkeesian, Mikki Kendall, Sady Doyle, and, oh, pretty much every woman on the Internet ever.

In 2007, Ellen Nakashima reported on the issue of online abuse, including on Twitter, for the Washington Post:

“A female freelance writer who blogged about the pornography industry was threatened with rape. A single mother who blogged about ‘the daily ins and outs of being a mom’ was threatened by a cyber-stalker who claimed that she beat her son and that he had her under surveillance. Kathy Sierra, who won a large following by blogging about designing software that makes people happy, became a target of anonymous online attacks that included photos of her with a noose around her neck and a muzzle over her mouth.”

In 2011, Vanessa Thorpe and Richard Rogers reported in the Guardian that these kinds of threats and harassment occur regardless of political views and public presence. To be a woman, or someone perceived as such, online is to be considered fair game for virulent misogyny that includes being sent graphic images (some very creatively photoshopped), violent speech, and personally identifying information that serves as a reminder that your stalkers are only a few steps aware. Notably, the situation becomes even more disgusting when race enters the equation.

Earlier this year, U.K. network talkSPORT barred on-air mentions of Twitter after commentator Stan Collymore laid into Twitter and its failure to contain racist abuse. Not because one of their commentators went off-script, either: Because they stood behind him and were furious that the network was doing so little to contain racism in its ranks.

Bullying is nothing new, in other words, and neither is being forced off social networks by the scope of abuse.

I have considerable privilege when it comes to online abuse. Unlike many trans women online, I haven’t been forcibly outed by the trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) community, which delights not just in harassing trans women but also in following them to their homes, families, and workplaces. TERFs routinely out women to their employers and other associates, hoping to ruin their lives in addition to breaking them down by bullying.

Doxing efforts like these commonly host personally identifying information like home addresses and Social Security Numbers offsite and link to it on Twitter—which isn’t, technically, a violation of the site’s terms of service. Bullies take advantage of the structure of the site to disseminate dangerous information about people, penalty-free.

And unlike Kendall and other women of color, I don’t have racial slurs and threats showing up in my mentions every single day, often cropping up from a multitude of sockpuppet accounts.

“In my five years on Twitter, I’ve been called ‘nigger’ so many times that it barely registers as an insult anymore,” writes Imani Gandy for Reproductive Health Reality Check. “And when combined with the standard sexist slurs that routinely get lobbed at women on Twitter, let’s just say that my ‘nigger cunt’ cup runneth over.”

Stephanie Hashaloh Techee Hall, an enrolled member of the Toad Clan (Semanolee-Miccosukee), told the Daily Dot:

“[My stalker] keeps tabs on me through social media. I’ve blocked him on everything, but Twitter is the one he is the most able to keep up with—because I use it a lot. I don’t want to make my account private because I like interacting and boosting hashtags if I can, but I also understand it puts me in a vulnerable position for people like him who want to stalk.”

She noted that Twitter has failed to respond to abuse reports, leaving her feeling like she has to delete or go private with her social media presence to avoid him. This advice is often handed out to victims of trolling, as though they’re the ones who should take responsibility for the issue.

Incidentally, such abuse also comes from white feminists, so don’t think this is exclusively a problem of your garden variety misogynists or racists out for a good time. For her work pushing back on the issue and challenging white privilege, Mikki Kendall has been tagged as a “bully” herself, illustrating the bizarre perversity of abuse in online communities—when called out as a bully, turn the accusation around! Google autocomplete helpfully suggests “Mikki Kendall bully” if you search for her name, and she was singled out as a prime abuser in “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars,” a passionate defense of white feminism masquerading as a screed against Kendall’s #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag.

How does Twitter suggest we deal with it? They recommend that we unfollow and don’t communicate with users who say things we don’t like—like floridly arguing for Kraft versus Velveeta, one supposes. If it escalates, they say, try blocking users. Next, Twitter grudgingly admits that if you’re facing credible threats, you should probably take it to law enforcement—but hey, consider talking it out with your family and friends first.

“When dealing with negative or hurtful interactions, it can help to turn to family and friends for support and advice. Oftentimes, talking with your relatives or a close friend may help you figure out how you want to handle the situation or let you express your feelings so you can move on.”

Because when someone’s sending me my home address and calling me a “fat cunt” who deserves to be raped through the hole he’ll slit in my throat, I definitely want to ask my friends for advice.

You can also, in theory, file a Twitter abuse report. However, Twitter is notoriously slow when it comes to addressing abuse, and for a report to work, you need extensive documentation—and remember to screenshot, because if a harasser later deletes a Tweet, the service will dismiss your report. You’ll also need to file separate documentation for each offending user—and Twitter still won’t do anything to address sockpuppet accounts. Smart harassers will, as Gandy points out, just keep making more accounts. They’re free and a snap to make, after all.

She attempted to publicly shame Twitter’s CEO and their abuse prevention staff and got a curt response suggesting they were “on this in a couple different ways” and that she should “leave it at that.” Twitter provided no indication of what these “ways” might be, and also didn’t offer any transparency into the process. Maybe because there isn’t one: Kristin Puhl reported a violent rape threat and was told it didn’t violate community guidelines, so it’s unlikely racism would arouse Twitter’s ire.

It wasn’t until last year that the service introduced a “Report Abuse” button to individual Tweets, and many third-party applications still lack this function. (I tried opening a Tweet from a friend to explore the reporting options and noted that while I could block her and report her as a spam user, I couldn’t report her as abusive.)

The discussion about Twitter abuse, in other words, is very, very old – essentially as old as the service itself. With every new social media client springs up a fresh way to harass users, and Twitter was no exception.

What’s curious is why the media pretends as though the abuse issue is a new one every time a prominent white woman’s struggle with it goes public. When many marginalized communities are enduring abuse on a daily basis (and speaking about it, in addition to proactively fighting it), it’s a depressing commentary on our society that we can’t take collective action on it unless it suddenly involves someone who, in the eyes of society, “matters.”

What will Twitter do differently this time, if anything?

We will not tolerate abuse of this nature on Twitter. We have suspended a number of accounts related to this issue for violating our rules and we are in the process of evaluating how we can further improve our policies to better handle tragic situations like this one. This includes expanding our policies regarding self-harm and private information, and improving support for family members of deceased users.

We’ve heard this song and dance from Twitter before, and every time, it goes nowhere. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo has, notably, adroitly dodged requests for comment on the subject. The site isn’t committed to tactics like IP banning, which would prevent people from registering accounts over and over again, or blocking scripts and bots which allow abusive users to register endless sequential accounts within a matter of minutes.

Twitter’s lack of engagement with the issue reflects an awareness of a general lack of interest in the subject socially. The service’s administrators are well aware that once the torrent of sympathy for the latest high-profile victim of abuse dies down, most people will return to their daily business – except among those of us for whom “daily business” includes clearing out our mentions constantly to remove abusive replies, and fruitlessly reporting abusive users.

Photo via blondinrikard/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Aug 21, 2014, 11:00 am CDT