Women politicians from marginalised communities targeted more on Twitter: Amnesty report

Amnesty International India studied thousands of tweets received by 95 Indian women politicians within a three-month period from March 2019.
Women politicians from marginalised communities targeted more on Twitter: Amnesty report
Women politicians from marginalised communities targeted more on Twitter: Amnesty report
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That women face an alarming amount of online abuse, harassment and trolling has been shown in many studies, as well as lived experiences. A new report by Amnesty International India prepared after studying thousands of tweets received by 95 Indian women politicians within a three-month period from March 2019 found some disturbing results.

Called Troll Patrol India: Exposing Online Abuse Faced by Women Politicians in India, the study found that 13.8% of the 1,14,716 tweets studied that mentioned the 95 women politicians were either problematic or abusive. “It also found that Muslim women politicians received 94.1% more ethnic or religious slurs than women politicians from other religions. The women politicians from political parties other than the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party also experienced more abuse,” the report says.

Engaged in this analysis were 1,912 decoders from 82 countries and 26 states in India. Apart from English, tweets in eight Indian languages were also considered: Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Tamil and Telugu. However, the study admits that a high proportion of the decoders selected English as their primary language, thus limiting the study’s scope. The three-month period was around the time of the 2019 general elections in India.

The findings

The study found that one in every seven tweets mentioning the women politicians was problematic, which means that on average, the women received 113 such tweets daily.

The findings reiterate that the power, prominence and fame of a person don’t always shield them from abuse. Women politicians who were more prominent were also targeted more – the 10 women who were mentioned the most also faced the greatest number of problematic or abusive tweets (79.9%).

Identity was found to play an important role in how the women were abused online as well. When it came to female Muslim politicians, or those perceived to be Muslim, Amnesty found that they “received significantly more abuse when compared to women from other religions. They received 55.5% more problematic or abusive content. 26.4% of the problematic or abusive content experienced by them contained ethnic/religious slurs, nearly double the proportion for women who are or perceived as Hindus (13.7%).”

It is alarming to note that women from SC, ST and OBC communities received 59% more caste-based abuse than women politicians in the general caste category.

Women who were from parties other than the BJP were found to receive 56.7% more problematic or abusive content in their tweets. Female politicians from the Congress received 45.3% more abuse on Twitter.

Overall, Indian women politicians were found to receive substantially higher online abuse than their UK and US counterparts.

Nature of the tweets

The abusive or problematic tweets were divided into the following categories: sexism or misogyny, ethnic or religious slur, racism, casteism, homophobia or transphobia, physical threats, sexual threats and/or other. More than one category could be chosen.

Unsurprisingly, the highest proportion of the tweets fell in the first category – they were sexist or misogynistic (19.9%) in nature. The lowest number were tweets that had sexual threats (2.9%).

Further, apart from the category of homophobic or transphobic tweets, and sexual threats, Muslim women politicians received more abuse in every category. While 4.1% of the tweets directed at Muslim women politicians were transphobic or homophobic compared to Hindu counterparts (5.2%), there was only a slight difference when it came to sexual threats – 2.9% for Hindu politicians, and 3.1% for Muslim ones.

Most of the abusive or problematic tweets considered in the study were found to be in Hindi (53.9%) followed by English (31.4%). Further, Tamil was found to be the language that had the third highest frequency in which abusive or problematic tweets were made.

Is Twitter doing enough?

Amnesty shared these findings with Twitter. Twitter said that “building a Twitter free of abuse, spam and other behaviours that distract from the public conversation is one of their top priorities. It has made strides in creating a healthier service and continues to further invest in proactive technology to positively and directly impact people’s experience on the service.”

It added, “Abuse, harassment and hateful conduct have no place on Twitter and we have taken strong steps to proactively address the health of the conversation on our service - including around peak moments such as Loksabha 2019.  Today more than 50% of abusive content that we take action on is identified proactively using technology, instead of relying on reports from people using Twitter. Our work will never be done, and our product, policy and engineering teams continue to work at scale and pace to build a healthier Twitter.”

However, the women who face the abuse are not convinced.

BJP’s Shazia Ilmi, for example, told Amnesty that while more women should enter politics, the price is high. “The price includes being trolled incessantly, being the victim of online harassment, having a lot of remarks passed about what I look like, my marital status, why I have or don’t have children, etc. – all the filthiest things you can think of. If they don’t like my strong opinions, they do not remark on my work but call me a ‘whore’ in every language that is used in India,” she said.

Atishi of AAP, who became a victim of vicious abuse during the general elections, said, “It is not the role of each woman to individually ensure her safety in public space. For example, if a woman steps out in public transport, it is the government’s role to ensure that they are safe there. Similarly, if there is a woman who is accessing social media on Twitter, it is the responsibility of the platform to ensure that it is a safe and secure space for women”.

Amnesty recommends that Twitter should enhance transparency by publicly sharing “comprehensive, meaningful and disaggregated information about the nature and levels of online abuse against women on a country by country basis, as well as other groups, on the platform, and how they respond to it.” Twitter also needs to improve its reporting mechanisms, and provide further clarity on how it interprets, identifies and handles violence and abuse on its platform, Amnesty said.

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