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MSPs speak out on Toxic Twitter abuse

Kezia DugdaleKezia Dugdale: ‘mountains of abuse’ (photo by Terry Murden)

Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale has joined other female politicians to back Amnesty’s new ‘Toxic Twitter’ campaign, and has revealed some of the abuse she receives online.

The campaign has conducted interviews with Scottish politicians including Ms Dugdale, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson.

As Twitter celebrates 12 years since the first tweet, Amnesty’s campaign challenges Twitter’s failure to prevent violence and abuse against women online. New research shows that fewer than one-in-ten women in Britain think Twitter is doing enough to stop online violence and abuse.

Ms Dugdale reveals in her interview that she reported three online death threats to police in previous years, including one post which said she should be ‘bayoneted’.

Ms Dugdale says: “There was one particular instance a few years ago now where somebody on Twitter suggested I should be bayoneted.

“That was the occasion that I went to the police. I believed that that could be perceived as a violent threat and I felt that it deserved some attention.

“First thing I do when I wake up in the morning is look at Twitter and it’s more often than not the last thing I do before I go to sleep because it’s the best means by which to consume breaking news, political commentary, and to see what people that you follow think of those events.

“You have to tune into that to find out what’s happening or you’ll find yourself out of touch with the news very quickly.

“If I were to show you my Twitter @reply column just now, 90 per cent of it would be abuse.

“Now I have to look at that every time to scroll through the good stuff trying to find those people who are genuinely trying to engage on an issue or ask a question about the substance on something you’ve raised in the Scottish Parliament.

“Probably ten or 20 times a day I am scrolling through absolute mountains of abuse. There’s different levels of abuse and harassment within that spectrum, some of it very serious indeed.

“Three times in the six years I’ve been an elected politician I’ve felt it serious enough to report to the police. That’s involved three death threats in six years.

“It’s definitely the case that I get more directly sexist commentary on Twitter and online from men although it’s not always exclusively men.

“In Scotland the phrase would be ‘daft wee lassie complex’. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about… she’s too young… too female to really understand what she’s going on about.

“So people will question your intelligence by referring to your gender. That’s probably the most common theme.

“If a politician has to wear robotic armoury so that stuff like that doesn’t get under their skin what’s the price of having that armoury on? The ability to feel?

“To understand emotion? I think that’s really worrying for the future direction of our politics.”

Amnesty found that fewer than 1 in 10 women in Britain think Twitter is doing enough to stop online violence and abuse.

Ms Davidson, the Scottish Conservative Party leader, said: “The sheer volume of abuse can make you sometimes feel hunted online.

“Because I’m openly gay there was a lot of homophobic abuse. I have a lot of young gay followers on my Twitter, and for me it’s important to call that out.”

Amnesty’s report concludes that:

• Twitter fails 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;
• Twitter’s response to abuse is inconsistently enforced – sometimes reports of abuse are not responded to at all – meaning content stays on the platform despite violating the rules.

Kate Nevens, Amnesty International’s Scotland Programme Director, said: :”Twitter has become a toxic place for women, where appalling abusive language and graphic threats of violence appear unchecked on their platform every day.

“Originally a vital source of news, Twitter has devolved into a place where women receive threats of rape, extreme violence, and even death as well as abuse related to their gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Our video interviews with Scottish political leaders and activists illustrate just how toxic some of the abuse they receive is – abuse which largely goes unchecked.

“In the last year, we have seen a wave of online solidarity and activism from women and men around the world – much of it powered by social media platforms such as Twitter but the impact of the #MeToo or #TimesUp movements will be limited if women fear speaking out in the wake of abuse.

“Abusive trolls are empowered to continue their campaigns of violence and abuse against women online because despite repeated promises, Twitter is failing to do enough to stop them. In fact, Twitter is silencing the voices of women and is having a damaging impact on their mental health.

“Whether they are political leaders, activists or everyday users, women in Scotland agree that time is up for Twitter to take positive, transparent steps to address and prevent violence and abuse against women on its platform.”

Twitter said it disagreed with Amnesty’s findings. In a statement, the company said it “cannot delete hatred and prejudice from society”, and explained it had made more than 30 changes to its platform in the past 16 months to improve safety, including increasing the instances of action it takes on abusive tweets.

The company repeated its refusal to share data on how it addresses reports of abuse. It said such data “is not informative” because “reporting tools are often used inappropriately”. 

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