Twitter grilled on policy approach that reinforces misogyny

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 — citing research that has shown women in public life receive more abuse than men which she said was why she was focusing her questions for Twitter on abuse targeted at women.

Cherry contrasted Twitter’s failure to respond quickly to misogynistic abuse 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 British 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.

Minshall 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 Cherry said feminist campaigners, journalists and she herself had tweeted about Twitter’s decision not to take down some of the 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.

The abusive tweets discussed during this portion of the session appeared to have been targeted at cisgender women, i.e. at women whose gender identity matches their birth sex.

To be clear, the term ‘cisgender’ was not used during the questioning session. But ‘terf’ — a term that stands for ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminist’ and is used to refer to people who reject the rights of trans women — was directly referred to during the hearing, featuring in several of the tweets that Cherry raised with Twitter. The MP suggested the term “tends” to be applied to women.

Before raising these tweets Cherry prefaced her questions by saying they relate to “the very active debate on social media about trans rights” — which she said contains “considerable abuse on both sides of the argument”, emphasizing that she “deplores any abuse directed at trans people”.

Twitter has been a major conduit for online conflict between transgender women and those individuals who seek to deny their rights as women.

One tweet that Cherry asked Minshall to look at 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”. Another included a video game clip of a man repeatedly chopping a cisgender woman in the neck which had been attached to a tweet saying “what I do to terfs”. A third tweet included what Cherry dubbed “a very unpleasant representation of a male flaying a woman alive” — which she said had been sent to a woman after she had complained on Twitter about receiving one of the other violent tweets.

Minshall said she believed all the tweets Cherry raised as examples at this point of the hearing 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.”

Later in the session Minshall also said that trying to moderate a public discussion about transgender rights can be “difficult” — leading Cherry to respond that none of the counter examples she cited of tweets related to male violence that were quickly taken down by Twitter were in any way abusive towards transgender people.

Had one of the tweets she raised contained an attack on trans people Cherry emphasized she would “condemn the tweet”. (The tweet being referred to at this point read: “All rapists are men. In UK law rape is a crime only committed by a person with a penis.”)

“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,” Cherry asked Minshall.

“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 it 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 question of the team’s gender breakdown 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 — asking Minshall at one point whether ‘terf’ is a gendered term “in the same way that bitch and cunt are gendered terms” (Minshall agreed it is gendered).

“Can you tell us why Twitter has chosen to exclude sex from their hateful conduct policy as a protected characteristic?” Cherry 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 female Twitter users to report abuse. She also 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 an earlier point during the session Minshall noted that Twitter is 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.

This post was updated to clarify that ‘terf’ is a descriptor, not a term of abuse; and with additional context around Cherry’s line of questioning and the transgender rights debate online