Remember GamerGate? The controversy was one of several in the past few years that have prompted hand-wringing about the supposedly rampant abuse women receive on social media platforms like Twitter. Reports and stories describing the harassment women receive online now appear regularly in the media. Misogyny, patriarchy, and sexism are all blamed for fueling such behavior.
But as a recent study by Pew Research comparing Twitter users to the general public revealed, if the culture of Twitter is toxic, then some of the responsibility for it should presumably rest on its users. And as the study found, the most active Twitter users are left-leaning women who tweet about politics.
The Pew survey noted several interesting trends, such as the fact that “Twitter users are more likely to identify with the Democratic party compared with U.S. adults more generally.” As well, “the 10 [percent] of users who are most active in terms of tweeting are responsible for 80 [percent] of all tweets created by U.S. users.”
But among that active 10 percent, “compared with other U.S. adults on Twitter, they are much more likely to be women and more likely to say they regularly tweet about politics.”
And boy are they angry about politics. Remember Georgetown University professor Christine Fair, who used the occasion of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing to tweet about the “chorus of entitled white men justifying a serial rapist’s arrogated entitlement?” She continued: “All of them deserve miserable deaths while feminists laugh while they take their last gasps. Bonus: we castrate their corpses and feed them to swine? Yes.” This was a clear violation of Twitter’s rules.
Yet, after suffering only a brief suspension of her account, Fair claimed she was only harassing men the way men harassed women online and refused to apologize, saying, “I will refuse to conform to your rules.” According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, she has also cyberbullied a female colleague who voted for Donald Trump.
Or remember the woman in California who harassed and threatened an old man wearing a MAGA hat and then boasted about it on social media? Or the transgender activists who consistently malign critics as bigots (and worse) and who incited a Twitter mob to attack tennis legend Martina Navratilova when she dared to challenge their claims about female and male athletes? They faced no repercussions for their bullying. Compare this to the woman who was banned from Twitter for referring to a transgender woman as “him;” she had to file a lawsuit to try to get her account reinstated.
Progressive keyboard warriors (who, according to Pew, are some of the most active users of Twitter) are only too happy to attack people who don’t embrace progressive ideology, but pivot to claim victim status when an ideological opponent tweets something they dislike.
Twitter executives claim the company has been making efforts to combat harassment; recently, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey has been on an apology tour, acknowledging the challenges of monitoring hate speech and harassment on the platform while trying to reinsure investors.
But Twitter leaders’ conversations about harassment inevitably end up focusing on women and minorities as the primary victims on Twitter, never as the perpetrators. As Business Insider reported, when Dorsey spoke at a recent TED conference, he said “his biggest worry was his ability to address the issue in a systemic way” and said the platform had “created a ‘pretty terrible situation’ for women—and particularly women of color.”
That’s misleading. A Pew Research study on online harassment in 2017 didn’t break out harassment by specific online platforms, but the general trends were clear: Most harassment was aimed at those with opposing political views, but even then, only a small percentage of overall users reported any experience of harassment. “Some 14 [percent] of U.S. adults say they have ever been harassed online specifically because of their political views, while roughly one-in-ten have been targeted due to their physical appearance (9 percent), race (8 percent) or gender (8 percent),” the report found. While the report noted that women were more than twice as likely as men to report that they were harassed because of their gender (11 percent vs. 5 percent), men were almost “twice as likely as women to say they have experienced harassment online as a result of their political views” (19 percent vs. 10 percent).
As for harassment on social media platforms in particular, if you believe (as feminist theorists have been telling us for decades) that women’s enormous educational and professional gains mean little because they are still the victims of structural sexism, then what are we to make of Twitter, where women—liberal, politically motivated women—are the structure, and dominate the conversation?
Not surprisingly, some activists argue that because Twitter’s leaders are white men, the platform remains a patriarchal, oppressive tool despite its majority female user base. In which case, why keep using it?
Common sense suggests that, for too many people, Twitter brings out the worst of their humanity, regardless of sex. Given what we know about social media, anyone who uses these platforms shouldn’t expect a safe space. They should expect to be insulted and verbally harassed—the system is designed to reward that kind of behavior with likes and retweets—which is why taking political discussions off Twitter would go a long way toward improving the quality of such debates.
Until then, however, caveat emptor. Harassment and incivility are the refuge of weak minds, and Twitter should do what it can to discourage such behavior on its platform. But let’s stop pretending that women on Twitter, particularly left-leaning women, are uniquely vulnerable to this sort of treatment. On the contrary, given that they are the majority of active Twitter users, women should engage in some critical self-reflection about how they are contributing to this often-toxic online culture every time they tweet.