40% of SA women regularly using Twitter face abuse, harassment - Amnesty International

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A study says SA women face harassment on Twitter.
A study says SA women face harassment on Twitter.
Fabian Sommer/picture alliance via Getty Images
  • Around 40% of female regular Twitter users experience abuse.
  • An Amnesty International report has found South African women are often subjected to intimidation or harassment on the platform.
  • The rights watch group has called on Twitter to do more to protect women.

Up to 40% of female Twitter users, who use the platform more than once a day, have experienced abuse online.

A survey commissioned by Amnesty International South Africa found that threats of violence, abuse and bullying were a "common" experience for many South African women.

The abuse often included threats of violence, rape, or death. The report also said this was aimed at creating a hostile online environment for women with the aim of intimidating or silencing them.

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The research found that women who were more active on the platform were more likely to experience abuse, while 40% of women who used it more than once a day reported experiencing abuse, compared to 13% who used Twitter less than once a week.

The women who reported this abuse found the enforcement of Twitter's rules to be inconsistent, the report found, adding that the platform had, in some instances, forced them to deactivate their accounts, change the way they interacted with the platform or to self-censor.

In the 2021 Twitter Scorecard, Amnesty International insisted that Twitter was still not doing enough to protect women and non-binary users from online abuse on the platform's "dark side where it is used to spread disinformation, abuse people or incite violence".

The Twitter Scorecard graded the social media company's record on implementing a series of recommendations to tackle abuse against women on the platform. According to Amnesty International, the company had fully implemented just one of the 10 recommendations from last year's report.

"It is concerning that women in particular are facing this kind of abuse online, with little to sometimes no support from Twitter," said Amnesty International South Africa's executive director Shenilla Mohamed, adding:

The release of Twitter Scorecard during 16 Days of Activism is also a stark reminder that violence against women is not just happening in person, but online as well which can have a negative emotional and mental health impact on those on the receiving end.

Amnesty International also asked women who chose not to report abuse why they did not do so. According to the report, all of the women who used the platform numerous times a week and who didn't report abuse responded that it was "not worth the effort".

According to Twitter's Transparency reports, more than a million accounts were suspended for violating its platform rules, between July and December last year.

Of these, 86 000 were linked to abuse or harassment. During this period, Twitter removed 3.8 million tweets that violated the rules. The platform's policy on abuse and harassment saw an "increase in the number of actions during this reporting period", and "initiatives were launched during the reporting period to better detect and take action on content that violated this policy".

There was no data specific to South Africa available regarding abuse and harassment. Twitter has approximately 9.3 million users in South Africa.

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In a response to Amnesty International's report, Twitter said it was "committed to experimenting in public with product solutions that help address the fundamental problems our users are facing and empowering them with controls to set their own experience".

News24 was unable to reach Twitter for comment at the time of publication.

However, Amnesty International insisted more needed to be done.

"We have seen time and time again that Twitter has continuously failed to provide effective remedies for the real harm and impact its platform has caused women and/or marginalised groups," said Mohamed. 

"As our world has become increasingly dependent on digital spaces during the Covid-19 pandemic, it's critical that Twitter meet this moment with demonstrated commitment to improving the online experiences of all users, regardless of their identity."


Social media law expert Emma Sadleir said women were disproportionately affected by online harassment and abuse.

She added that online platforms often appeared to place privacy concerns above protecting women from threats through, for instance, declining to give up information of accounts that were harassing women.

Sadlier said women should always first follow the platform's reporting structure, including reporting abuse or harassment and blocking the account where possible.

However, Sadlier said that in her experience, this was often a frustrating or unsuccessful process.

Women do have legal recourse against online abuse, Sadlier said.

These included taking out a protection order, laying a crimen injuria case if their dignity was infringed, or pursuing a defamation suit. New legislation which came into effect this month provided women even more protection.

The Cyber Crimes Act now criminalised the publishing of non-consensual intimate images - either real of simulated - and also made it a crime to publish a data message that contained a threat or incitement to violence.

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