For the birds – How Twitter is failing women who use the platform, and how it can change

Recently, movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp have shown the power of social media to engage people in a global conversation about women’s rights. But as we see the rise of women standing together, we also see an increase in online violence and abuse against women. Online violence against women is an expression of entrenched gender inequality across society. It has found a particularly fertile home on social media, where people feel emboldened to target women in ways that are inconceivable in face-to-face interaction. The sheer volume of abuse has reached alarming levels and it’s clear not enough is being done to tackle it.

Over the past 16 months, Amnesty International has been researching online violence and abuse against women. Our research shows that this widespread abuse deeply affects women’s rights to freedom of expression and equal participation in society. The conclusion is that social media, where trolls can too easily get away with spouting abusive, violent and sexualised threats, has become a toxic place for women.

How abuse leads women to self-censor or quit

Twitter is one of the largest social media companies in the world and was repeatedly highlighted by the women we had been speaking with in the US and the UK as a particularly toxic site, due to the fast pace that content - including violent and abusive content - can spread.

Through in-depth interviews with journalists, politicians, activists, artists and public figures, as well as women without large Twitter followings, we were able to unpick the disturbing extent of online violence and abuse that exists against women on the platform. Threats of rape and death, homophobic, racist and transphobic slurs were all abuses that were repeatedly highlighted by the women we spoke with. And it’s clear that receiving such abuse can have a deep psychological impact, with many women feeling they had to self-censor or quit the platform altogether for fear of abuse.

Many women Amnesty spoke with described how they had reported multiple tweets to Twitter with very few receiving a response. One UK journalist told Amnesty that she reported 100 abusive tweets, of which Twitter removed just two. On numerous occasions, women told Amnesty how the content of abusive tweets they reported was said "not to be in breach of Twitter’s community standards".

It’s clear that Twitter is currently failing to do enough to tackle the issue and ensure all users can realise their right to freedom of expression whilst using the platform. The company is failing to let users know how it interprets and enforces its policies, or how it trains content moderators to respond to reports of violence and abuse, and its response to abuse is inconsistently enforced. Often, reports of abuse are not responded to at all.

 Beyond gender

Not everyone experiences violence and abuse in the same way – there isn’t a unified ‘woman’s’ experience of Twitter trolling. Women are targeted in different ways according to their gender, race, class, sexuality and other parts of their identity which intersect to create unique experiences of online violence. In practice, this means that some women experience abuse on multiple grounds because of their intersecting identities.

The intersectional nature of online violence against women emerged starkly in Amnesty’s monitoring of online violence and abuse against women MP candidates in the UK General Election last June. Using a mix of computer analysis and in-depth interviews with women MPs, we uncovered the extent of violence and abuse they face on Twitter. For example, Ruth Davidson told us about the homophobic abuse she receives and how she lost faith in the reporting process after failing to see action from Twitter. She also shared how the deluge of abuse makes it challenging to engage in genuine conversation on Twitter.

We also found that while many women from across all the political parties experienced online abuse, Diane Abbott MP received almost half (45.14%) of all abusive tweets in the six weeks leading up to the 8th June election. The abusive tweets she received targeted both her gender and race through misogynistic and racist language. Asian women MPs received 30% more abusive tweets per MP compared to white women MPs, even though they represent just 8.8% of all MPs. Reading through the tweets they received clearly illustrated how a woman’s intersecting identities are targeted by online trolls.  

What Twitter needs to do

Amnesty’s report concludes that Twitter should develop and implement a human rights due diligence process to identify, prevent and remedy human rights violations. It needs to assess - on an ongoing and proactive basis - whether its policies are fit for purpose. Given the nature of the violence and abuse taking place on Twitter, it is necessary for due diligence to be informed by gender analysis, as well as analysis of other identity based human rights violations.

Twitter also needs to be more transparent and share comprehensive and meaningful data about the nature and levels of violence and abuse against women - as well as other groups - on the platform, and how the company responds to it.

And Twitter should undertake far more proactive measures in educating users and raising awareness about security and privacy features on the platform that will help women create a safer and less toxic Twitter experience.

Government responsibilities

While our research concentrates on Twitter, states too have obligations to prevent online violence against women. We welcome the Law Commission’s review into trolling laws commissioned by the Government and recommend that it interrogates whether different groups of women at the receiving end of online violence and abuse because of their gender and other parts of their identity are protected by the law.

In addition to legislative reform education is critical to tackle violence against women: we welcome the Government’s commitment to introduce sex and relationship education in schools and recommend it includes the online environment.

The future of tackling violence against women must consider how it plays out online, and companies like Twitter have a key role to play in protecting human rights. Social media companies urgently need to improve their analysis of online violence, and they must put the necessary resources in place so that they can properly enforce their own rules to prevent the abuse. If they don’t, they risk further silencing women online.

Chiara Capraro is Women’s Human Rights Programme Manager at Amnesty International UK

Tackling the gender pay gap

April heralded the deadline for large organisations to publish their gender pay statistics. Appropriately, it closely follows the centenary of the first British women’s vote.  Hailed as an opportunity for Britain - which has one of the widest gender pay gaps in Europe - to comprehensively tackle issues surrounding gender equality in the workplace, participating companies have reported disparities in pay across the board. Hopes that this drive towards transparency will boost awareness and improve pay equality are justified, although some have concerns regarding the effectiveness of the measures used and the potential for statistical misinterpretation. There is a call to focus on encouraging women into higher-paid roles, as well as providing facilities to allow them to move from part-time to full-time work if they desire.

The data

The gender pay gap is defined as the difference in average earnings between men and women. Under the Government’s 2017 legislation, large companies with over 250 employees are annually required to report their salaries. Information provided by over 10,000 companies in the opening year indicates that men are paid more than women across all main occupation groups.  The median pay gap of 9.7% grows in synchrony with age, reaching its peak for those between 50 and 59. According to the Office for National Statistics, the difference in median pay can be accounted for by a number of factors. A greater percentage of men work in higher-paid occupation groups (e.g. chief executives and senior officials), and men are more likely to work full-time, therefore earning more on average.

Equal measures?

A huge volume of statistical data has been produced, and it can be easy to jump to false conclusions and misleading speculation. Previous data releases by government have suggested that the gender pay gap is not driven by discrimination as many suppose. Kate Andrews, from the Institute of Economic Affairs, has accused these latest figures of “failing to provide any meaningful insight into equal or fair pay for men and women in the workplace.” This is because the figures do not control for differentiating measures, such as job type, background and the number of years of experience.

There have, however, been calls for a recognition of the deeper issues exposed by the gender pay reveal. Lloyd Blankfein, Chief Executive of Goldman Sachs, argues that the statistics highlight the fundamental issue of the “under-representation of women” at the higher echelons of the wealthiest sectors. The fashion retailer Phase Eight has attracted attention on this score. In April of last year, it was revealed that thirty-nine of the company’s forty-four male employees worked in the corporate head office. Chief Executive Benjamin Barnett agrees that the retailer is in a difficult position – the vast majority of applicants for their lower-income jobs on the shop floor are female, and as such they face a struggle to redress the salary balance between male and female employees.


What causes women to put up with, consciously or unconsciously, lower-paid careers at the bottom rungs of the company ladder? Although direct discrimination may be an influence in in a small number of cases, equality pay legislation has been largely successful in preventing this.

Previous data releases have suggested that the gender pay gap is relatively stable until women have their first child. Women then are much more likely than men to leave the workforce to care for their child. When their child enters full-time education, women then frequently choose to return to part-time work to allow them to combine motherhood with work.

Research by the Institute of Fiscal Studies shows that the gender pay gap jumps from 8% to 30% after women have children, and the percentage of women in part-time work is 44% compared to 13% of men. The unequal caring responsibilities between women and men, according to the Fawcett Society, subtly compel women away from pursuing better careers and higher salaries.


The British Government has been praised globally for its decision to legislate on mandatory pay gap reports. With gender equality at the forefront of discussion, it is a direct confrontation of one of the ‘burning injustices’ faced by modern society. However, the provision of data does not necessarily signify change, and only time will tell whether adequate steps have been taken to truly bridge the gap.

Amabel Scott is a research assistant at Bright Blue


Understanding conservatism and human rights

There is, of course, dispute about the meaning and scope of all political terms, but ‘human rights’ and ‘conservatism’ both seem particularly problematic. 

A serious problem with the former relates to overuse. It’s a truism to state that human rights are important, yet, contrary to increasingly popular opinion, this doesn’t mean that everything of importance is an issue of human rights. First, not all of our interests as humans are rights-related. Second, not all rights are human rights; human rights are a subset of rights we have by dint of being human, including — to follow the opening of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — the rights to life, liberty, and security of person, and the rights not to be enslaved or tortured. And third, in that rights need realisation, while all rights have correlative obligations, not all obligations correlate with rights. 

So, although human rights are a particularly important set of rights, they aren’t exhaustive in terms of covering all the protections and opportunities we want, need, or deserve as humans in a good society. The modern obsession with diluting the language of human rights through its over-application is not only lazy, it’s dangerous. 

‘Conservatism’, on the other hand, seems an underused term. This is unsurprising, as it’s trickier to pin down than the other classic political ‘isms’, not least when considering what adhering to such a position entails. To my mind, this is because conservatism is inherently situational and non-ideological. It is responsive and reactive, rather than driven by a set of codified principles or positions. And it depends on time and place. (Just compare conservative ideas across the world today.) Sure, there are certain general things we tend to associate with such a standpoint in the UK, or even more widely — such as fiscal restraint, an appreciation of tradition, and support for long-standing institutions and the environment. But, again, those things usually relate to sustaining what has, over the long term, tended to work in a society (though, of course, that leads to arguments about what ‘tended to work’ can mean on a non-ideological point of view). 

Nonetheless, when people here think about conservatism, they tend to think about the Conservative Party. Much of the reason the term seems underused or under-applied is because it’s the party’s actions, rather than the theoretical notion, that are often actually referred to in discussions of ‘conservatism’. Not all conservatives are Conservatives, however, and not all Conservatives are conservative. Indeed, over the past century or so, alongside strands of ‘real’ conservatism, the Conservative Party has mostly been led either by those of a traditionally liberal outlook, or those of a more paternalistic bent. It’s a famously broad church, which is unsurprising for a party sharing a name with a responsive non-ideological philosophy. 

So how might these terms relate? What is the philosophical and historical relationship between conservatism and human rights? One might start by recognising that UK Conservatives have often been at the forefront of increasing rights provision: Disraeli and the franchise, Churchill and the founding of the UN, Cameron and equal marriage, and so on. Considering our nation’s proud habeas-corpus human-rights history, it’s unsurprising that a UK party based on situational traditionalism might show support for such an ideal. (Again, just compare with the positions of conservatives abroad, through time.) 

But, regardless of historical explanations, a list of Conservative achievements in the realm of human rights seems insufficient for proving any relationship between conservatism and human rights, even if all those Conservatives were driven by conservatism. This is not least because lasting changes to legislation, institutions, and norms tend to owe much more to long-fought battles by activists, than to the colour of any contemporary governing party. 

Moreover, it’s tempting to say that support for fundamental human-rights provision shouldn’t really be seen as ideological or party political, at all. Surely, in an advanced modern society, we’d expect any decent party or person to be in favour of ensuring such rights. Ok, that returns us to the nature and scope of human rights. And yes, it’s probably accurate to assume conservatives might be less likely to apply the term ‘human right’ as widely as those of a more ‘progressive’ persuasion. It’s probably also accurate to say that Conservatives have been more focused on rights under their phases of more (classically) liberal leadership. Nonetheless, for those who accept there are such things as fundamental human rights, rather than just legal or political constructs, then that acceptance largely transcends partisan allegiances — although it may well inform one’s overall understanding and views of the world. 

All that said, our rights are primarily afforded and protected by the country in which we live, led by the Government of the day. Believing in universal human rights is easier than envisaging a world in which they are universally respected; the nation state remains at the heart of human-rights provision. And questions about such provision pervade political discourse not only abroad, but also at home. Brexit will provoke inevitable debates about the UK’s continuing participation in the European Convention on Human Rights, and it will be essential to address this pragmatically and sensibly — both key conservative traits, which remain much in need. 

Rebecca Lowe is director of Freer and a columnist for Conservative Home