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Podcast Episode 04: Misogyny on Twitter with Dr. Holly Lawford-Smith

Hello and welcome to the Feminist Law Podcast, I’m your co-host Courtney Jones and I’m your co-host Clara Topiol. We are both co-founders of the Feminist Law project and final year law students who are very passionate about feminism and the law.

Today on the podcast we have Dr Holly Lawford-Smith, political philosopher, academic and author. Would you please introduce yourself to our listeners?

HLS: Hi, I’m Holly, I am a political philosopher at the University of Melbourne in Australia, and am really looking forward to talking to you guys.

Thank you. So you recently published an article about the prevalence of misogyny on social media, just how bad is it?

HLS: Well, in that article, we were mainly focussed on Twitter, so we didn’t do a comprehensive survey across different platforms, and the empirical evidence (as is usual for these topics) suggested some things were worse than others. So one of the studies looked at female MPs in Scotland, and it found the rate was about 2.4% of the Tweets they received. Which can sound pretty low, but then for anyone with a high follower account on Twitter, 2-3 out of every 100 tweets you receive being misogynistic or abusive is quite high. And there were other resorts suggesting things are worse, and the big report was Amnesty International’s toxic Twitter report in 2018. It made a strong case that women are dealing with disproportionate amounts of harassment and abuse on social media platforms. In saying that, some are much worse than others, I think there were 3 that were particularly bad and tended to have about double the rates of men than women on the platforms, which of course, might be related. Twitter was one of those platforms.

So, how does misogyny typically present itself on social media, or Twitter in particular? What type of abuse do women commonly experience?

HLS: In this case, with the MPs, it was things like… denigrating, sneering, being given less respect, or being assumed to have less credibility, so just more hostile type reactions and interactions in things like quote Tweeting and replies. That is in the best case, but it is still in the ballpark of being deeply unpleasant and bordering on harassment, but then of course you have got more outright misogyny that explicitly denigrates women or denigrates an individual in virtue of her membership in the class of women, and that is very different flavours of that depending where you are coming from on the political spectrum. So from the gender traditionalists, who would express resentment toward women being in public life at all, or in powerful roles in public life, and to the other end of the spectrum, which is things like slurs. There is a whole range of stuff we might be interested in. But the complex question is going to be: what is the stuff that is just part of life on social media, even if it is deeply unpleasant, I don’t see any real way to change things like credibility reactions, maybe it is just going to be a part of life that women experts are facing more scepticism than men because there are assumptions about expertise or credibility. That is horrible, but it is hard to see a way to change that without really encroaching on people's freedom of expression or freedom of speech. But there are things you can certainly intervene on to make life better for women on these platforms. Things like slurs or things like incitement to violence,

dehumanising language and stuff like that. So there are improvements at least that could be made.

CT: Why do you think this is such a common problem experienced by women specifically?

HLS: As a feminist I think there is still a lot of work to be done until we get to sex equality. So a lot of the stuff we would think is unacceptable, might be stuff that someone with a very different world view of the relationship between the sexes or the nature of women, they would just think they are truth tellers. I guess the root of the problem is just global attitudes to what the relation between sexes are and how different they are, and what the proper place of each is. And from all of that, comes certain sorts of attitudes and things that feel violated. If you have a traditionalist concept of gender, you think the woman's place is raising children, being in the home, or looking attractive, and then you have women just flagrantly violating these norms, and so you feel like things are out of place, so you feel resentment. It is comprehensible where that comes from and some part of that debate we have settled with science and experiments and living as a pragmatist would say, as we have put women into the situations of giving them opportunities and seeing them thrive and flourish in them so we have debunked certain traditionalist ideas about the relationship between the sexes but there is still heaps of open questions that are still playing out and they're still reasonable disagreement on some of those grounds about whether there are any particular evolved differences that might lead to different average preferences for example. You could certainly have someone who had a strong view about something, then it's in most women's nature to be more like this but she's not like that so she's out of her place so she's going against nature or whatever else. So it could be easy to think we've made so much progress in feminism and then be puzzled about why there's still so much abuse or harassment or caricaturing or denigrating of women, but I think we still have a really long way to go. So it's not really surprising that we see this playing out online as well as in real life.

CJ: So it sounds like there are still expectations for how women are meant to behave in society, and that translates to behaviour online as well. So how does this abuse that women face on social media impact their online behaviour?

HLS: Well, in one of the studies we looked at, we found that women has substantially altered their interactions with social media, again this was focussed on Twitter, so it was something like 25% of the women surveyed had experienced abuse to the extent of things like threats of physical violence or rape threats. And of that proportion, it was a really high number, something like 75% of those women had substantially modified the ways they use or interact with social media as a result. So that means using it substantially less or having a private account, so that you don't have to take whatever interactions come at you. And again… it can sound trivial that “this woman has to use Twitter a little bit less” and that's great because she’ll be more productive in her life or job or whatever, but I think one of the things that in particular impressed me is that so much of our career opportunities are being pushed towards having a digital presence, and academia is one example, but I'm sure it's true for a lot of different industries, that Twitter/LinkedIn/other platforms mean you can make your social networks and get opportunities that way, so it's not trivial actually if you have to limit your interactions with these platforms or spend substantially less time on them in order to manage the sorts of interactions that you're having and how unpleasant they are.

CT: Yeah, it definitely sounds like the impact is more substantial than what it seems, from what you're saying. So you also mentioned in the Article that some social media platforms like Twitter, have agreed that there is a problem and have made some changes as a consequence. These policy changes had some undesirable impacts, so could you explain what they have done and how it inadvertently caused problems for women, such as banning and self-censorship for example.

HLS: This is an interesting broader phenomenon. I was listening to a podcast earlier today that was talking about this, in the anti-racism space, which I was surprised to hear, just because I had not really looked into it in other areas, that often these kinds of policies backfire against the kinds of groups they are intended to protect. And I guess we shouldn’t be that surprised by that, because dominant groups, in this case we're talking about men, they are more used to using the systems that have been put in place, or that they have put in place, they are more confident about using them, or people with more social power feel more empowered to use those tools. So it's not that surprising that it turns out that once you put new policy tools or laws into place, it is the people who have more social power that tend to use them. So there is a risk that you introduce these tools that are supposed to protect women from online misogyny or online abuse, but then the more confident or more powerful players tend to be the ones who actually use those tools. So a horrible example of this that is not on social media, is domestic violence laws. At least in Australia, you can be believed by the police when you tell them that your partner has been assaulting you. But often the man will assault the woman then he will call the police, but because she mildly fought back at some stage, even if she hasn’t, he can tell the police but he has been assaulted and the police officers often will believe him and arrest her. So these tools that have been put in place in the hope of preventing domestic assault or violence against women, are then being used by men and they are symmetrical protections so anyone can use them. So that is a very long winded way of saying that Twitter did make this move to put in place a range of measures about hateful conduct, and gender or sex that was intended to protect women through a list of protected attributes. One thing that I have really worried about is the way that, immediately trans-activists have ended up using their own protections against women and women have been getting temporary and permanent bans, and in my own case being permanently thrown off the platform/Twitter. So what does that show? Maybe trying to be maximally charitable, it shows that it is very hard to get the policy right or to put a policy in place that is going to protect a particular social group, but can't be abused or does not have loopholes, or doesn’t let the dominant group in relation to them take advantage of that policy. Or you would have to be careful that you didn't protect two minority groups at once but in a way that meant… I think this is a particular complicated case, you might just think that trans people and women are separate, so we can protect both of them, but if you are not cognisant of the way these two groups can interact, then you are getting women thrown off a platform for having a specific conception of feminism or about their own liberation but because that clashes with protection that trans-activists have it is being framed as being a certain sorts of anti-feminist behaviour, or anti-LGBTQ behaviour, or anti-woman behaviour, because you have the much broader conception of women, so it is all kind of a mess.

CJ: Going off the example of women getting banned, that was an issue for Canadian feminist Megan Murphy, whom you may have heard of, she was also permanently banned from Twitter because of her gender critical beliefs, but expanding on the policies and the real world impacts that has on women, you wrote in your article, and this is a direct quote:

‘Twitter is not merely a commercial entity, but is rather a social and political institution, whose architecture and policies produce real world effects for women.’ So could you explain what the real world effects are, and how these are caused by Twitter?

HLS: In that section of the paper, we were trying to present a bunch of different examples but, one of them was about this case that I just thought was fascinating, about the abortion debate having gone global, and I think it was that a particular platform in Ireland had started analysing various anti-abortion and anti-choice tweets that had been coming in, and they later found that the bulk of them were coming from the United States and I think that was a helpful way of showing that you've got this big global democratic speech platform that facilitates having these really important debates, even if it is a commercial platform, technically, rather than a more obvious institution of our democracy, it is still serving this important democratic role, which shows that we should take participation on this platform really seriously.

CT: How difficult is it to hold individual misogynists on social media accountable for their behaviour?

HLS: I would say very difficult. We were kind of approaching the question in the paper as moral philosophers, we were really interested in this question of where is the blame or the culpability for the fact that women have this type of experience on certain platforms like Twitter or Reddit. And so we were working through… “can we pin this on individual men who use the platforms and then tweet misogynistic things at a Scottish MP?” Why not pin on him? That was the first thing we entertained and rejected, and I think part of the reason there is… what he does is so low level, you might have heard of this concept of microaggressions that got fashionable in the last 5 to 10 years, so maybe sometimes it is something in that ballpark, but sometimes it is even less if it is just a like a very mean tweet or a retweet of a slightly snide quote tweet. We were kind of thinking that the real harm of it to women, what it's like, or what might drive you off the platform, or make you alter your usage, is the cumulative effect of all of those things. It is not really one person’s tweet, or at least it is hardly ever the case that one person’s twitter action crosses the line/threshold for something you could really say was a harm to you or was an insult to you. The cumulative effect is what matters rather than what the individual misogynist does, at least most of the time. And that related to this much bigger discussion in philosophy, I think we gave examples of four areas where the structure of the problem is, what individuals do on a discrete occasion… Those actions just make such a tiny or insignificant or insubstantial contribution, but it's what a lot of people do together where the thing rises to moral significance. So voting to elect a candidate, or the fact that people buy enough sweatshop T-shirts that certain people are having these horrible working lives in sweatshops. It is cases like that. So we went through some of that argument and dismissed the idea that the blame really lies with the individual, let's call them misogynist tweeters, we thought no, we need something more substantial than that.

CJ: So it sounds like you think the platform itself should be held accountable, but how could this be done?

HLS: Is it a really fair question, because we kind of went from the individual and that it can't be him, to saying well could it be coalitions of them together, well they are not usually

organised enough in the way moral philosophers tend to want groups to be organised to hold them responsible as a group, and so then we landed on the platform itself. And to answer the “how”, sometimes it's just too late. One of the things we talked about was, at the platform’s inception, there could have been safeguards built in, or there could have been more thought given to the fact that there tends to be many more male users than female users. So we thought about how to make a platform a more appealing and inclusive place for both sexes and those safeguards weren’t built in. The history of Twitter in particular, apparently it had no rules from its inception. I think it had about 5 million users, before it introduced some rules. But if we are asking about pragmatic interventions that can be made now, the ship has sailed on that. We already are where we are, and I guess we are having this conversation at a really interesting time, because there has been this change of ownership in Twitter. We have gone from a much more left wing, and highly interventionist strategy on Twitter, to what will probably be, when it all shakes out, it should be a much less interventionist and more free speech type approach to the platform. Although Musk is saying he still plans to keep some hateful conduct type policies in place. And what could we hope for as feminists? It seems like a lot of this is done non-explicitly, they just have this vague hateful conduct policy and say that you can't discriminate on the basis of whether they use sex or gender. What would that ideally involve? I think the really hard philosophical question here is: what are the open, important debates that have not yet been settled, even if we find them uncomfortable? As feminists, we have to be really honest about that, and then make sure that no hateful conduct rules that we put in place could possibly encroach on or close down that discussion in advance. And one reason I feel so strongly about that - it's related to this conflict that gender critical feminists have with trans-activists, where I think what the old Twitter regime has done, is look at an open debate for example: what is feminism? Who is feminism for? Can feminism be a movement based on sex? Do we need a movement based on sex? And they have taken a substantial position in that debate, and then they've called their enemies hate speech. And so the hate speech policy is actually a political tool that is being used to silence particular perspectives in the debate. And those perspectives are legitimate, the debate is far from settled. So I think that is a really good thing to keep in mind when we are trying to think as feminists about what we want hateful conduct policies to be when it comes to abuse of women. Because we want to get rid of the worst of it, get rid of the slurs, the dehumanising language, the claims about moral inferiority, but we don’t want to go as far as to shut up men who are only contributing to what is a reasonable and open debate about the places of the sexes. We vehemently disagree with them.

CJ: It sounds like it is very much about finding a balance there.

CT: I do think you have hit the nail on the head with that one, so I was wondering, do you think government regulation could play a role in terms of preventing misogyny on social media platforms?

HLS: It is interesting because Musk was saying that he wants to defer to the law of each country and I think that is a hilariously American perspective. Because America has such strong First Amendment protections and so what he is saying is that in the context of America, they are going to go from being this highly interventionist far left agenda platform, to being more back to the classic liberal or libertarian free speech type platform, but that is not true in Germany. Or Australia. And in my state, Victoria, we are looking very likely to, early next year, introduce new hate speech laws, that will add a range of new protected

attributes, both intended to protect trans people and women and sexual orientation minorities, so there are three new groups that will be protected, to the existing groups of race and religion, so our hate speech rules will become some of the most stringent and excessive that you can imagine. And then Musk is saying, he is assuming he is going to make the platform have more free speech on it. But if he is tethering the laws of each country and state, it might be that in some states it has massively less than he seems to think it would have. I find that quite interesting and appealing that it wouldn't be up to the social media companies themselves, because it is so important that everyone has a voice in these global, open platform political discussions. I think people like me and Megan Murphy, we feel very silenced and frustrated that we can't just be on Twitter chipping into these various debates. We have lost something. So it is really important to be able to participate, but then I don't know what you do about the states that really overreach and maybe when I reflect on that, it makes me think it is not about the state vs the corporation, it is all about the politics of it. It is that if the corporation has a more hands-off approach, that doesn’t encroach on open debate, but roughly get things right, you don't mind it, right? I, with my politics, don't mind it. Because I'm going to be much more angry at the state, if the state starts encroaching on my ability to talk about my feminism, where it then starts calling that vilification, then I would probably prefer that the corporation with a more lenient policy is the one to make rules rather than the state that was highly interventionist as super woke about it. So then I think no, it’s not a question of who is the right authority to make these rules, it is just whoever makes them, I don’t want them to be settling open debates in advance and enforcing a particular ideology on everyone. And unfortunately, Twitter has done that in the past, my state is about to do that in the future. We just have to fight that wherever we find it, if we care about open debate.

CJ: It is particularly difficult given the international perspective of social media platforms, Twitter, so you have people from all over the world who are contributing to one debate and it is hard to find that balance, given the different laws of different countries and different states about what can be said, and what can't be said. So it is definitely a difficult, complex thing to resolve, so going on from that, you mentioned that Twitter is a private rather than public platform, so it is not bound by the same, democratic principles like other traditional media outlets, so do you think, given that a lot of political debate happens on Twitter, and people get their news from Twitter, that Twitter should be held to the same standards as traditional media outlets?

HLS: Yeah, so I think the temptation is to say, and this has been said to me when I have complained about being banned from Twitter, but it is a commercial entity, it can just do whatever it likes. Dating platforms are like that, blog writing platforms. They can just have their rules, and if you don't like them, you can find another platform. And there is a sense that I have some sympathy for that, but it is more that the platform becomes a monopoly or de facto monopoly, the more it is playing the role that our important democratic institutions play, and the media is a really important part of that, but there are lots of platforms and ways that we all, if we think about it domestically, ways that we all participate and get to have a say in our politics, and our lives are now increasingly online, we do a lot of stuff we might have done face to face in the past, through these digital platforms. So I just think that Twitter is fairly unique in what it offers, it is not like there are no comparable platforms, Reddit for example offers similar sorts of opportunities, so I think the more that it is the case that this thing, even if it is private, if offering this way of people contributing to the political discussion, even if it is international or domestic, the more I think it has to take seriously obligations to facilitate participation in that discussion. And the more that it is wrong, for it to exercise these commercial prerogatives, to throw off anyone who violates some kind of arbitrarily specified standard. I think what really stings is the partisan, it is not like there is one of each, if you are someone on the further left, who really thinks diversity and inclusion are the leading values, and everything else should come second, to them, then you have Twitter pre-Musk. But then if you have a more free-speech type attitude, then you have Platform X, whatever that is. It is not like there is an equal number (Medium is a good example, it facilitates sharing of posts), that platform, I am also banned from that for writing gender critical stuff, again there is not another Medium that has more free speech style policies, so there is a place where everyone can go and participate. The whole point of having this global discussion is that you need a place where people can find their people, at the very least, but you would hope, even though there is this problem of severe polarisation, that people can at least be in the same space as each other when they disagree, and maybe talk. So Problem 1, it is not like there are platforms for both sides, and I can go somewhere else when I get banned, there is not. But even if there were, that might still be a less desirable solution, because we do want people to be together and have conversations and work out their differences. So we ended up thinking that, given the role Twitter and some of these other platforms play in the global democratic discussion, they have really serious obligations when it comes to facilitating democratic debate. Although, I think we ended up leaning more on this… professional opportunities, equal opportunities, career type line, than we did on the Democratic line. If I am remembering our argument correctly.

CT: Thank you for that. Can I just ask you, if we see someone being a misogynist on social media, what do you think would be the right response from us as individuals, in terms of reporting them or otherwise?

HLS: I mean… that is such a good question. I guess it's hard to establish if someone is acting in good faith and there is a conversation that could be had, because I'm a huge fan of trying to talk through our disagreements, even when it's uncomfortable, and I always give everyone a shot, and this has wasted a lot of my time. I just find myself having these pointless arguments with someone who would turn out to be a 16-year-old from Texas with three followers. I think it would be great if we were always willing to give conversations a shot, because you do find interesting people with interesting perspectives. Or you can at least find out why they have those views, and sometimes there's a chance of getting to the bottom of what is explaining that perspective, maybe it's resentment, maybe it's insecurity. But on using the report function, I guess this is the thing that, well, if we had a really clear sense as feminists of what counted, then that should be fine, right? If we agree that there are certain slurs that are just unacceptable or dehumanising language, or saying things like “she’s just a thing to f*ck”, right? Bringing these subordinating stereotypes, the class of things that have been explicitly articulated, and you can just report on the basis of them being clear rule violations, I don’t see why that would be a problem. But I think what happens with the imprecision in the rules, which is what's happening to feminists now, is that it is not clear. Twitter states that misgendering is wrong, but then trans-activists mass report feminists for saying that there are two sexes. And then people get banned, so the imprecision of what counts as hateful or falling on the wrong side of the line. But you would not want it to be that you've empowered this army of feminists to go around policing everyone's language because they don't like it, and we have to admit some of our activists

can be just as bad as the trans-activists sometimes, so getting a clear understanding of reporting the actual bad stuff, you're not crossing over into silencing other people's thoughts or expressions because we don't like them, and I think for me it's been sharpened so much facing the trans-activists, because I see the ways that they behave and I just hate it so much and so now I'm really cautious about not being like that myself, and not wanting my people, which is women and feminists, to be like that either. But we don't have that clear sense yet, I think.

CJ: Thank you for that. So if people want to learn more about your views on feminism or political philosophy, where can they go to read some things or to learn more?

HLS: So, is our main repository, in terms of philosophy, so if you search my name, Holly Lawford-Smith, you would find all of my work, I have a book that came out this year, called ‘Gender Critical Feminism’, so that is where my most recent take on feminism

can be found. And I am on YouTube, so a colleague and co-author of mine, we run a channel called Feminist Heretics, where we present works from second wave of feminism, usually radical, and sometimes we link the chat/reviews of recent feminist books. And so you can also find me there.

CJ: Thank you so much for joining us today on our podcast.

HLS: Thank you for having me.

Transcribed by Hannah Whiterow


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