Are ‘most influential’ Twitter lists sexist?

If rankings arbitrarily pass over women, they are meaningless.

Twitter is full of funny, interesting women. In fact, 40m more women than men use the site in a month, as shown in this attractive infographic from Information is Beautiful

Caitlin Moran, herself a voracious and brilliant doyenne of the Twittersphere, spent a whole paragraph of the acknowledgements in her book thanking ‘The Women of Twitter’ and ‘The Honorary Women of Twitter’ for reminding her that “funny women with a well-informed point are a dime-a-dozen”.

Why, then, do the lists that magazines, newspapers and PR firms put out from time to time fail to reflect this? The latest Foreign Policy magazine is a case in point. They have just released their FP Twitterati of 2012. Of their top 100, just nine are women. Billed as ‘A who’s who of the foreign-policy Twitterverse in 2012’, they haven’t shared their selection criteria in any particular detail, beyond simply saying that these are the feeds “you need to follow to make sense of it all”.

(An enterprising individual has set up a document where you can add the Twitter handles of female foreign policy tweeters who contributors feel should have been considered.)

The Portland NewsTweeters list, which the Westminster village tends to get itself in a flap about, is another good example. Slightly better than FP, they manage nine women out of fifty.

The Independent’s ‘Twitter 100’ list from earlier this year says that it “measures quality as well as quantity”, and unlike others, does at least provide a brief account of the methodology used to compile the list - they used a combination of PeerIndex ratings and a panel of experts. Eighteen of the hundred are women. By their own measure, I can think of five women right now who would have had a strong case for inclusion: the BBC’s Clare Balding (PeerIndex of 60) and Carolyn Quinn (52), the New Statesman’s Helen Lewis (63), The Independent’s own Jane Merrick (57) and Grace Dent (59). I’m sure I could keep going for quite a while, which leads to the question – on what grounds were all of them rejected by this panel of experts?

The Indy sum up their criteria as the three As: authority, audience and activity. How likely are they to tweet things that others want to share or comment on? How many followers do they have and how do they interact with them? How much do they tweet? These are the things, The Independent says, help distinguish an influential tweeter from someone who just has a large, yet inert, fanbase.

So are these lists merely reflecting the under-representation of women in public life, or is there something else going on? From what I can tell, the likes of PeerIndex and Klout aren’t even true measures of someone’s social media influence. According to this research, the more different providers try to measure influence, the harder it gets to do with any degree of accuracy. In addition, existing indices apparently tweak their algorithms a lot anyway. It’s also a bit of an echo chamber up there – the higher your score, the more likely you are to interact with other people with high scores, and the higher your score gets.

As Kira Cochrane said in her excellent investigation last year into the shocking lack of female bylines in British newspapers, blunt measurements (such as these lists) aren’t necessarily a definitive account of the gender balance.

They do, however, speak to the laziness and inherent bias of the people compiling the lists. Of course there are women with huge Twitter followings out there who are leading the charge and get selected for this kind of thing, and that’s all to the good. But until the compilers are prepared to look a bit further, to the vast numbers of women who are reading, writing, thinking and tweeting just like their male counterparts, these lists aren’t going to reflect what’s actually going on. And if they don’t do that, what’s the point of them?

We love to mess with the bird.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot