Taking On Twitter’s Worst Trolls


Any woman who’s ever been on Twitter knows harassment is de rigueur—and a new study from Women, Action and the Media (WAM!) confirms that once and for all.

The study found that women on Twitter are subject to many forms of harassment, including threats of violence and revenge porn, but endure hate speech (sexist, racist and homophobic slurs) and doxxing the most.

The study, which builds on a 2014 Pew Research Center report that found women are most often targets of online sexual harassment and stalking, reviewed 811 detailed accounts of cyber bullying on Twitter. Researchers found that 27 percent of female Twitterers who complained about harassment (including LBGTQ women and women of color) were victims of hate speech, 22 percent had their personal information shared online without their consent (doxxing) and 12 percent experienced threats of violence.

To collect the data, Twitter users reported their experiences to WAM!, which then evaluated the complaints and noted relevant information, such as the type of harassment being reported. Then they passed the complaints along to Twitter and tracked the site’s response. This is the first time Twitter has granted such access to an organization like WAM!, a feminist nonprofit committed to increasing representation of women in the media and countering gendered harassment online.

The WAM! researchers found Twitter’s response mechanisms to be lacking. For example, users who wish to file complaints are required to submit URLs of harassing tweets (screenshots are inadmissible) thus failing to address “tweet and delete,” a popular doxxing technique. Moreover, Twitter’s URL requirement makes it nearly impossible to report abuse that is not linked to a URL, such as being subject to disturbing and sexually violent imagery and language contained in profile pictures and usernames made ubiquitous through favorite and follower notifications.

But even if users meet Twitter’s rigid harassment evaluation requirements, few see immediate action. According to WAM!, 67 of their study’s submitters mentioned notifying Twitter at least once prior to filing their complaint with WAM! and 18 percent reported contacting Twitter at least five times. Of the 161 reports of harassment WAM! escalated, Twitter acted on only 55 percent of them, suspending 70 accounts, issuing 18 warnings and deleting one account. In addition, while Twitter moved to resolve most complaints involving hate speech submitted to WAM!, they dragged their feet with cases of doxxing, ignoring nearly twice as many requests for action than they addressed.

Fortunately, WAM! has devised some strategies to improve the social media site’s response to online harassment, including developing new policies to address the unique challenges “tweet and delete” harassers and doxxers pose to Twitter moderators, refining and broadening the definition of abuse to include the myriad ways trolls harass and intimidate women online and empowering users to filter out trolls.

In the meantime, WAM! introduced #HarassStats to continue the conversation on Twitter and beyond. Hopefully, with WAM!’s help, the campaign to end gendered online harassment will attract a few more followers.

Photo courtesy of keiyac licensed under Creative Commons 2.0


Kitty Lindsay is a Ms. blogger and works at the Feminist Majority Foundation. She is also creator and host of Feminist Crush, a weekly podcast featuring conversations with feminist artists and activists. Follow her on Twitter!