Who's afraid of Twitter's misogyny problem?

A new study looks at rampant hate speech across the platform. How much brands should care is still an open question

On Friday, celebrities Taylor Swift and Gigi Hadid received death threats. “I will kill some of you,” a person posted on Hadid’s Twitter page. And when Kim Kardashian West posted a nude photo of herself to Twitter, celebrities were harsh. Celebrity journalist Piers Morgan wrote, “I know the old man’s $50 million in debt, Kim — but this is absurd. Want me to buy you some clothes?”

On Thursday, social media monitoring company Brandwatch released a study detailing the amount of misogynistic speech directed at women on Twitter. In the month leading up to May 25, the company tracked the number of times the words “slut” and “whore” were used in tweets. What they found surprised them. There were 102,136 mentions of the offensive words, with over 3,000 recorded every day.

Surprisingly, the majority of the hate speech came from women. Out of the 102,136 total mentions, 64,800 could be categorized as belonging to a gender. (Gender is calculated by matching the first names in Twitter accounts to a large database of names, according to Brandwatch.) The study found 39,728 mentions came from females, making up 61.3 % of the total, while 25,099 mentions came from males, making up 38.7% of the total.

Although hate speech is found across all social media, Twitter’s unique features make it particularly conducive to harassment, said Jonathan Adams, the chief digital officer at WPP’s Maxus.

“If we look at Twitter and Instagram, their handles certainly provide more anonymity than Facebook’s full name format — the latter are fundamentally broadcast platforms for extroverts,” he said. “But when you have something rotten to say — the Twitter platform’s immediate, reactive nature is perfect for getting something off your chest.”

And that’s a problem for a company trying desperately to attract more advertisers. Misogyny and hate speech — from whichever gender — make for a dangerous operating environment, and brands are wary of being ensnared in the muck. Just this month, Sony’s all-female “Ghostbusters” was so deluged with misogynistic tweets it became an issue when the movie’s cast shared the stage with Hillary Clinton on “Ellen.”

And an Old Navy ad featuring a multiracial couple was so beset by racist tweets, fans of the brand tried reversing the negativity with supportive messages.

Twitter knows it has a problem and is taking steps to fix it. At the end of April, the company gave users the ability to report multiple abusive tweets in a single report, rather than one at a time, a move apparently designed to weed out chronic offenders. In February, Twitter also formed a “Trust & Safety Council” made up of safety advocates, grassroots organizations and community groups that help advise Twitter about posts that might be offensive. No brands currently sit on the safety council.

“Our ambition, in tandem with addressing abusive behavior, is to reach a position where we can leverage Twitter’s incredible capabilities to empower positive voices, to challenge prejudice and to tackle the deeper root causes of intolerance in society,” said Kira O’Connor, Twitter’s head of trust and safety outreach in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, in an emailed statement.

Maxus’ Adams noted that “hate speech has been a concern for marketers for decades.

“We even addressed hate speech when we drafted the IAB/4A’s Terms & Conditions for Interactive Advertising — and that was 10+ years ago,” he said.

While eliminating abusive speech on platforms entirely is an unrealistic goal, brands have an ever-expanding choice of platforms to choose from, and some platforms are better at discouraging that kind of behavior than others. Still, advertising in an interactive environment means accepting a certain level of unpredictability. The question is whether brands will decide that Twitter’s positives outweigh its nasty downside.

“Brands who publish on Twitter as content creators do so with hopes of connecting with their consumers in living-breathing and ever changing platforms,” Adams said. “Each will always come with some risks. In Twitter, the good far out weighs the bad if a brand’s voice is consistent and they are able to capture the zeitgeist of a trending moment.”

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