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Troll Watch: Online Harassment Toward Women


And now we'll return to our Troll Watch series.


MARTIN: That's where we bring you stories of cybersecurity attacks, bots and, of course, Internet trolls. This week, we're going to hear about a report from the international human rights organization Amnesty International that focused on online abuse directed at women. Their report, called "Troll Patrol," analyzed millions of tweets sent to women last year, and it found what many people already suspected - that women and particularly women of color are targeted for abuse on Twitter.

Tanya O'Carroll is one of the report's authors, and she directs Amnesty Tech. That's an arm of the organization focused on the intersection of technology and human rights. And I started our conversation by asking her what made the organization decide to look at the environment for women on Twitter.

TANYA O'CARROLL: Well, I think that just the space that we've been operating in as a human rights organization has changed so much in the past 10 years. So in the last couple of years, we've been documenting everything from the use of surveillance, spyware attacks against human rights defenders. And, on the other hand, it's stuff like manipulation of social media. So we tracked in Mexico, for example, the use of trolls to undermine and discredit very prominent critical voices of journalists and human rights defenders. And so it's about trying to upscale ourselves in order to really understand the way that state control and repression actually takes place now that the Internet is here.

MARTIN: So tell us about some of the findings from the report that stood out for you. I just want to mention here that the model estimated that of the 14.5 million tweets mentioning women, a million of them were abusive or, as you describe them, problematic. But you also said that some of the findings on race really stood out. Tell me a little bit more about that.

O-CARROLL: Yeah. So we found that women of color were targeted more. So they were, in general, 34 percent more likely to receive abuse than white women, and black women particularly. So I think the most striking finding really is this - 84 percent more likely to receive abuse than white women. Asian women - 70 percent more likely to receive racist or ethnic slurs. I think this is not shocking to a lot of people in the sense that it's what we've been anecdotally hearing for a very long time. But what it is this time, we have now the evidence base to say that this is not - you know, this is not perception.

MARTIN: Can I talk to you about the methodology from it? I understand that there was a combination of machine learning and crowd sourcing - that you got input from more than 6,000 online volunteers from around the world. The data is very compelling. But what about men? Did you compare to men? Because I can imagine where some might argue, fairly or unfairly, that is the Twitter-verse. That is, unfortunately, the culture of the place, and that men are equally likely to be attacked. And it may be unpleasant, but at least it's equal opportunity. What would you say to them?

O-CARROLL: Yeah. We didn't actually look at men in this study. And this is partly because this study is the third big piece of research that we've done on the phenomenon of violence against women online. And so it's based off the fact that we already knew and we know that the way that women are targeted online is very different, and it's very gendered. It's stuff like doxing and hacking and violent rape threats. And so, in this case, we are very specifically interested in the experience of women because we know, just as offline discrimination and violence against women is rife.

MARTIN: We reached out to Twitter for comment on the report, and an official responded via email - and I'll just read here, quoting - "Twitter has publicly committed to improving the collective health, openness and civility of public conversation on our service" - unquote. They added that abuse, malicious automation and manipulation detract from the health of Twitter and that we are committed to holding ourselves publicly accountable towards progress in this regard.

I understand that members of the Amnesty International team have spoken with a Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, about the report and its findings. Can you share any more information about that? Was there any meeting of the minds about what might happen going forward?

O-CARROLL: Yes. I mean, this is the interesting thing, right, which is that normally when amnesty are calling out a company, we're very much on the other side of the table. In this case, what we find from Twitter is that they get that this is a big issue. They acknowledge that this is happening on their platform. The question next is, how? How do we address it? How does Twitter address it? A lot of the abuse that we detected and that many people report should be taken down from the platform.

The second issue is transparency. They've started to release some data, but the data isn't currently dis-aggregated. It doesn't tell us much about the number of tweets in total that are sent to women that may be abusive every year, how many of them are removed. And it was a - where those moderators are based? What languages did they speak? You know, Twitter is a global platform, and the abuse is global, too.

MARTIN: I want to drill down just a little bit more on what you think the practical effect of what you've found is that causes us to rise to the level of a human rights issue.

O-CARROLL: Yeah. I mean, the practical effect is censorship. You know, I think when we talk about censorship, so often people's instinct is to think about the protected speech - so the ability to offend, the ability to even abuse. We don't think very often about, what the censorship consequences for people who are regularly abused and intimidated and have essentially become scared over time to speak out online, to express themselves freely.

Really, anytime a woman has the audacity to hold an opinion and express it in a proud or confident way online, they may become victim to a backlash and potentially an orchestrated backlash. So I think when we talk about this issue and think about the freedom of expression consequences, it's really important to realize whose freedom of expression are we prioritizing.

MARTIN: That's Tanya O'Carroll, director of Amnesty Tech at Amnesty International. We reached her in Oxford.

Tanya, thanks so much for talking with us.

O-CARROLL: No worries. Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.