New Research Illuminates Escalating Online Violence on Musk’s Twitter

By: ICFJ | 03/07/2023

Research on online violence against women journalists from the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and the University of Sheffield features in a new BBC Panorama investigation revealing how misogynistic hate speech is thriving on Twitter since Elon Musk’s takeover.

As part of the program, “Elon Musk’s Twitter Storm,” ICFJ and the University of Sheffield partnered with BBC Panorama to study online violence targeting BBC disinformation reporter Marianna Spring, who like other women journalists has a history of being brutally attacked online. They found abuse targeting Spring tripled in the first three months Musk ran Twitter, compared to the same time period a year prior.

The data featured in the investigation, which aired March 6 in the UK and will air globally on BBC World starting March 11, shows that earlier efforts by Twitter to curb attacks against women journalists initially appeared to be helping in Spring’s case: From November 2021 through January 2022, online abuse against her declined dramatically compared to the first period of monitoring in early 2021.

“This clearly demonstrates that Twitter's fledgling efforts to protect women journalists online had started to pay off by late 2021,” said Dr. Julie Posetti, ICFJ’s deputy vice president of global research. “But these gains began to rapidly reverse after Elon Musk took control of Twitter.”

The researchers compared abuse that Spring experienced between November 2021 and January 2022 over the same time period a year later, following Musk’s takeover in October 2022. They found that the attacks against her had tripled.

“Musk obliterated the teams at Twitter responsible for fighting hate speech, gendered disinformation and other forms of online violence, and he has reinstated users with a track record of abusing others,” Posetti said. “In doing so, he essentially signaled to misogynists and other nefarious actors that Twitter was now a 'safer' environment for them to practice their abuse.”

Check out Spring’s related article, “Twitter insiders: We can’t protect users from trolling under Musk,” and tune in to BBC World on March 11 to watch the BBC Panorama documentary. For more on online violence against women journalists, see The Chilling, including the chapter documenting Twitter’s earlier efforts to curb attacks.

This BBC Panorama segment follows a recent collaboration between ICFJ and the University of Sheffield, along with 30 international media organizations taking part in the Story Killers project coordinated by Forbidden Stories. As part of that initiative, a number of news outlets across the world relied on online violence research from ICFJ and the University of Sheffield. Learn more.

The research featured by Panorama and the Story Killers investigation was conducted as part of ICFJ’s UK Government-funded Online Violence Early Warning System project. 

Contact: Dr. Julie Posetti, ICFJ Deputy Director of Global Research, jposetti@icfj.org

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