If there's one thing we've learned in the past few months—in which multiple women have been driven from their homes after expressing public opinions about video games—it's that Twitter is shamefully rife with gendered abuse. Of course, Twitter's sexist troll problem extends back far longer than that: compressing one's deep-seated problems with women into 140-character bursts is more or less a hallowed tradition on the internet.
It doesn't help that Twitter isn't particularly good at handling harassment, despite the fact that the social media platform has become fairly notorious as a medium where anonymous misogynists can convene in order to hurl vitriol at women with whom they disagree. Case in point: Robin Williams' daughter Zelda was forced to shut down her Twitter account because users kept tweeting her Photoshopped images of her father's dead body as well as messages blaming her for his death. In response, Twitter swore it would improve its policies; so far, though, there hasn't been any substantial change.
There was also the time that feminist activist Caroline Criado-Perez was subjected to a huge onslaught of invective and violent threats for suggesting that Jane Austen be put on the ten pound note. As a result of the abuse, she said, she couldn't eat or sleep, and she feared for her life. And, before that, writer Zerlina Maxwell was bombarded with racist comments and repeatedly threatened with rape and murder after appearing on Fox News to argue that guns aren't the solution to rape. I could go on for a very long time listing instances in which women were greeted with brutal, sustained sexism after voicing fairly innocuous opinions.
This is not a new problem—although any attempted solution would be a first.
A recent Pew Research report finds that women experience particularly severe forms of online harassment—whereas men are slightly more likely to be called names, women are disproportionately targeted with sexual harassment and stalking. So, when it was announced last week that Twitter would be teaming with Women, Action, & the Media (WAM!) in order to better handle abuse reports, the mass consensus was "fucking finally."
According to WAM! executive director Jaclyn Friedman, the collaboration has two main goals: the first, in the short-term, is to help ensure that reports of gendered abuse actually get seen by Twitter. "We now have an authorized reporter relationship with Twitter, where we escalate things to Twitter instead of keeping them in the general fire hose of the queue," she told VICE.
The second objective of the collaboration will be to observe the various forms that gendered harassment takes on the site. "We're trying to collect data about what kinds of harassment women are experiencing," Friedman said. "What tactics are being used, what patterns and contexts Twitter's reporting is not capturing, what types of harassment Twitter is already handling OK, and what's falling through the cracks—what do they need better policies and procedures to handle?"
Previously, WAM! had worked with activist and writer Soraya Chemaly to get content that glorified rape and violence against women removed from Facebook. It was Chemaly who originally reached out to Twitter. "All of us see what's happening on Twitter, we all experience it," she explained in a phone interview.
Unlike Twitter's current reporting system, the WAM! model takes into account the myriad ways that women are harassed: on the WAM! form, you can specify if you're being threatened with violence, doxxed, subjected to hate speech, etc. Additionally, the WAM! form allows users to say whether they're being harassed by a single person or multiple accounts, providing necessary context that's currently lacking from the reporting process.
But both Chemaly and Friedman stress that the collaboration between Twitter and WAM! is not a viable solution in and of itself. "Twitter needs to make the solution," said Friedman. "We want to work with Twitter, we want to help Twitter make the solution, but the solution is not a two-person nonprofit solving Twitter's problem. We're really happy to partner with them, and we're really encouraged by the response we've had from them so far. But ultimately the solutions are going to have to come from Twitter."
As Chemaly put it, "I feel cautiously optimistic, but the fact is that we approached Twitter."
There's no indication that Twitter would have taken any action on its own if WAM! hadn't reached out. And, while Friedman says that Twitter is "interested in doing better," the platform doesn't have a great track record in responding seriously to the relentless stream of threats against its female users.
A major source of contention between activists and Twitter is the (rather accurate) perception that Twitter thinks it's remaining neutral by refusing to take action on hate speech and gendered abuse. Friedman and Chemaly vehemently disagree with this view of free speech. They both maintain that refusing to take a stance on harassment allows it to proliferate, effectively silencing marginalized communities.
"No one's paying attention to the current loss of speech that people are experiencing as a result of the abuse," said Chemaly. "That's just minimized and minimized and minimized. There's this [fear about the] future possible loss of speech for, basically, some violent dudes—whereas there's no real assessment or consideration of the suppressive, silencing effect that harassment is already having."
"We have to grapple with what 'free speech' means now," affirmed Friedman. "There's no way to have a neutral platform. Every social media platform has to pick what side they're on. If you leave your platform totally open to bullies and abusers, you are impinging on the freedom of free speech of women—especially women of color, especially trans women and queer people, who are going to be abused and who are not going to be able to freely use that platform and freely speak. You have to pick. You have to draw a line. Because not drawing a line is also drawing a line."
Will Twitter actually draw a line? Will they take a definitive stance against gendered abuse? Or will the extent of their action on this issue consist of asking a two-person nonprofit to sift through the hideous multitude of hateful Tweets sent to women on a daily basis? As of now, it's impossible to be sure.
Twitter replied to multiple requests for comment with the same canned response: "We're always trying to improve the way we handle abuse issues, and WAM! is one of many organizations we work with around the world on best practices for user safety."
Follow Callie Beusman on Twitter.