Twitter grilled on policy approach that reinforces misogyny

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Twitter has faced a barrage of awkward questions from the U.K. parliament over its ongoing failure to tackle violent abuse targeted at women. 

Katy Minshall, the social media platform’s head of U.K. government public policy, admitted it needs to do more to safeguard women users — but claimed the company is “acutely aware” of the problems women experience on Twitter, saying it’s in the process of reviewing how it applies its policies to fix its long-running misogyny problem. 

“We are acutely aware of the unique experience women have on Twitter and changes we may have to make in our policies to get that right,” she told the human rights committee session on free speech and democracy this afternoon. “We are very much aware of the real issue that women experience on our platform.”

Parliamentarians raised the issue of how unequally Twitter applies policies on hateful conduct depending on the sex being targeted, with MP Joanna Cherry accusing the company of displaying a pattern of relaxed tolerance to tweets containing violent attacks on women.

She contrasted that with examples of alacritous intolerance to tweets that raised the issue of male violence — citing examples of users who had had their Twitter accounts temporarily suspended for making factual, gender-based observations with a male flavor — such as that, on aggregate, men kill more than women.

Or tweets citing English law — which states that only a man can commit rape.

“There seem to be a number of mistakes here. And they seem to be mistakes that are failing to protect women. Do you accept that?” asked Cherry.

“There is clearly a number of steps that we want to take, we need to take, but we are in a different place to where we were even this time last year,” said Minshall initially, before simplifying her response to “clearly there’s an issue here for us to look at” later in the Q&A session.

She was asked to look at several examples of violent tweets which had been directed at women, including tweets whose recipients had reported them to Twitter — only to be told they did not violate its hateful conduct policy.

Only later, after feminist campaigners, journalists and Cherry herself had tweeted about Twitter’s decision not to take down some of these misogynistic tweets did it reverse course and remove them.

Minshall admitted that one of the abusive tweets had been removed last night, after Cherry had tweeted to draw attention to it.

One tweet cited during the session depicted a cartoon figure with a photo of a real hand holding a gun pointed at the viewer, atop the caption “shut the fuck up terf” — ‘terf’ being a term of abuse which Cherry pointed out tends to be applied to women; another showed a video game clip of a man repeatedly chopping a woman in the neck which had been attached to a tweet saying “what I do to terfs”; a third was what Cherry dubbed “a very unpleasant representation of a male flaying a woman alive” — that she said had been sent to one of the women after they had complained on Twitter about receiving one of the other violent tweets.

Minshall said she believed all the tweets Cherry raised as examples violated Twitter’s policies and should have been removed if they hadn’t already. Though said she doesn’t work in the safety team, caveating her response with: “I’m not the expert.”

She also said that trying to moderate a public discussion about transgender rights can be “difficult” — leading Cherry to point out that none of the counter examples she had raised were in any way abusive towards transgender people.

“What I’m trying to understand is why, initially, the first tweet — the chopping in the neck — was ruled alright by Twitter. And why it took the intervention of a leading journalist, a leading feminist commentator and a member of parliament for it to be ruled not alright,” she went on.

“We need to understand who is actually carrying out these decisions. Who is carrying out the mediation at Twitter. Is it done in the UK, is it done in America, who is done by. Is there any attempt at gender balance within the teams of people looking at these tweets.”

Minshall said she could not answer the gender breakdown question there and then — saying she would write to the committee with an answer.

Cherry also made the point that sex is a protected characteristic in UK law, and pressed Minshall several times on why Twitter’s hateful conduct policy only applies to gender.

“Can you tell us why Twitter has chosen to exclude sex from their hateful conduct policy as a protected characteristic?” she asked. “I’m wondering if that’s what could be going wrong here? That the training is not covering the fact that sexist, misogynistic, demeaning behavior should be treated as seriously as abuse of, for example, trans people.”

Minshall said Twitter’s hateful conduct policy is based upon United Nations definitions, arguing the current policy that protects gender should also protect against misogyny — while admitting there’s still an asymmetrical burden on women users of Twitter to report abuse.

She agreed to follow up with the committee to explain why Twitter’s policy does not include sex as a protected characteristic too.

“There’s a lot that we want to do to reduce the burden on reporters,” she said. “We have rules in place where it would be a breach to target someone based on the fact that they’re a woman — where we need to do far more is to be proactive in reducing the burden on victims to report that to us.”

At another point during the session she said Twitter is also reviewing its policy on harassment — saying it’s concerned about the risk of women being stalked via the platform by ex-partners.

“There is an issue specific to women, typically ex-partners, stalking them on Twitter in ways that have traditionally been difficult to detect in our rules — and we want to do better on that,” she added.

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