Twitter’s Old Frenemy : Online Abuse and Trolls

by Meera Pattni 

“I am a lot more of an anxious person now than I ever was before. My mental health has suffered,” says Samira Sawlani, who joined Twitter in 2011 and has been at the receiving end of abuse on a regular basis.

Sawlani is the media director at Media Diversified, a website which speaks out against discrimination, especially racism and Islamophobia.

“I have received messages accusing me of bias in my work, of being a fake and also there have been a few occasions where I have received threats,” she says.

 “As a woman, and in particular one who speaks out against rape and misogyny, the online abuse is often centred on being called a slut or a whore.”  Sawlani says the worst abuse she experienced left her crying for hours on end.

“A few months ago, I was live tweeting a speech by the Kenyan opposition leader and referred to him as ‘raila odinga.’ All his supporters came after me and attacked me for not spelling his name with a capital R. The abuse that day was like nothing I have ever faced before.”

Online abuse is a massive problem that’s been around even before the age of Twitter. The advent of social media has led to an increase in the intensity and scale of this abuse, with studies showing that about 88 per cent of it takes place on Twitter.  

Not an isolated incident

Sawlani’s story is one example of why it is important for Twitter to do something about the abuse its users experience on the platform. However, hers is not an isolated experience. In a study conducted by Amnesty International in October 2017, 106 of the 504 women between the ages of 18 and 55 surveyed had experienced online abuse or harassment.

Arfa Shahid is Pakistan’s first plus-size hijab wearing TV news reporter. In March 2018, she was featured on BBC Minute and spoke about the lack of modest clothing available for plus-size individuals. She received a great deal of abuse following the interview. 

“I got a lot of abusive comments about my body that weren’t coming from a place of constructive criticism,” Shahid says.  “They were all about body-shaming, fat-phobia and made derogatory remarks about me as a person.”

So what is Twitter doing to combat this problem?

On 15 May 2018, the social media giant announced that it will take steps to make hateful language less visible on its platform. Twitter said that it would alter its algorithm in order to tackle harassment.

CEO Jack Dorsey told The Guardian that this change is going to be one of the highest-impact measures that the company has taken. The update is expected to change the way in which tweets appear in search results or conversations. The aim is to take the burden off the person who is receiving the abuse, Jack Dorsey said to The Guardian.

Twitter’s Vice President of trust and safety, Del Harvey, says: “We’re tackling issues of behaviours that distort and detract from the public conversation in those areas by integrating new behavioural signs into how Tweets are presented.” 

The change in algorithm will mean a change in how the abusive tweets are ranked. While abusive messages will not be deleted, they will be ranked further down, which will make them less visible. 

Seyi Akiwowo, the founder of Glitch! UK, an organisation that works towards combating online abuse, says that she noticed this change of algorithm recently. One of the abusive tweets directed at her went right to the bottom of its thread. This means that the algorithm change might be effective.

She says: “I think the change in Twitter’s algorithm is a positive step. But I don’t think it’s enough. There needs to be a proper response to say that it’s not acceptable. The abusive tweet is only being hidden, but it can still be tweeted again. I think the algorithm should be able to remove the abusive tweet from the platform – full stop.” 

In order to tackle abuse more efficiently, Akiwowo says that social media giants should share information and intelligence about who is doing the abuse by lobbying the trolls from across different platforms.

“If you are a troll, you’re not on one platform, you’re probably on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram,” she says, “they can build a bigger picture of that person and that way the police will be able to prosecute them.” 

While taking measures is necessary, many people wonder how long it will take for abuse on the internet to stop altogether, and if that is possible at all.

How long will it take for this to stop?

Dr Kaitlyn Regehr, a gender, media and cultural studies scholar at the University of Kent, fell prey to online abuse in 2015. She had used Facebook to track down a man who stood up for her when she was harassed on a London bus.  Her post went viral, and she was accused of being a “celebrity victim”.

Regehr says that changes in popular culture such as #MeToo may make the internet a more positive place. “We need our popular culture to change for our actual social culture to change. I don’t want to say things will never change. I don’t want that to be true,” Regehr says.

“We’re in a moment now of real social change, but I don’t know how long that’s going to take. I don’t think anyone does.”

Featured Image Illustration by: Meera Damji
Arfa Shahid’s Photo by Raheel Sahotra

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