Why I’m never writing this blog again: Twitter as a hostile environment

This guest post comes from Katherine Wright (Newcastle University).

A recent blog post from Simon Usherwood highlighted some very salient benefits and costs of using twitter as a PhD/ECR. A noticeable absence was the lack of consideration of just what it means to be a woman or other marginalised group on twitter.

Simon, to his credit, engaged and has revised the original blog to include a reflection on how twitter is a hostile space for the many. As he pointed out in the resulting twitter thread, for someone who doesn’t experience twitter this way, it can be a difficult issue to write about. I would argue this is exactly why you should.

This is therefore a blog post to link to or preferably quote from if you are unsure of how to engage with the backlash which makes twitter a hostile environment for those around you. This is your ‘toolkit’.

This is not just an issue relevant for ‘how to’ blogs, gender blindness can and does characterise advice from PhD supervisors, informal conversations on twitter over coffee and institutional training. As Ben Bowman tweeted:

Given the severity of the gendered and racialised pushback many experience in the public eye, and twitter specifically, all training on social media or engagement should start with this. It is a responsibility of our employers and us as individuals who care about whose voice is heard.

Our Universities are increasingly encouraging us to tweet in order to ‘engage’. Less frequently does this advice come with any sort of recognition of the risk those of us who identify as women or other marginalised groups will be putting ourselves at (or corresponding support). Twitter can seem like the obvious tool to engage beyond the academy. But obvious for whom?

And just who can you engage with anyway? As Simon and I have argued previously: “Online spaces offer echo chambers that potentially reinforce divisive political agendas and undermine democratic logics of interaction, compromise and consensus”.

Yet to understand how twitter is gendered we need to go further than this and ask just who can you engage with as a woman on twitter? Twitter functions as a ‘gendered echo chamber’. Men and women use twitter in equal numbers and yet the key influencers (those shaping debate, who show up more in your feed) are men. A 2017 report by Lissted found that even when women engage with twitter equally, their voices are not heard to the same extent. So if you are a woman who tweets, your tweets are at a disadvantage from the outset as you are less likely to be an influencer. There is a good chance you will not be heard.

So even before we get to trolling, we find women marginalised from a space often presented to us as one we can engage with on fair terms.

Twitter is not a utopian ideal, misogyny is built into the infrastructure of twitter. Trolls (understood here as both bots and people) disproportionately target women and other marginalised groups (along racalised, ableist lines and targeting LGBTQI). Trolls also target content on gender, so those of us researching gender face an additional challenge to getting our work heard.

What does trolling feel like? Often the takeover of your mentions can make twitter unusable in terms of volume and the type of tweet you are receiving. Whether it is one death or rape threat, or hundreds you are made to feel insecure and unsafe. At the most extreme, this can translate to a user going offline to escape the trolls and the police being involved.

We only have to look at how women MPs in the UK have been treated on twitter to see how this is also deeply racialised. Diane Abbot MP, for example, receives almost half of all abusive tweets sent to women MPs, something she has described as ‘debilitating, corrosive and so upsetting’.

Gender and race then shape the digital environment and this can and does lead to silencing of those who do not conform to a particular ideal of a white cis gendered man. It is beyond time that this was acknowledged by us all in the advice we give, whether informal or formal. And that we begin to push back against the discourse that twitter offers an opportunity (for all) to engage beyond the academy. It doesn’t.