Glitch!UK is a new, thriving and internationally known non-for-profit organisation with a mission to end online abuse in the UK. ‘Glitch’ is defined as ‘a temporary malfunction’. When we look back on this period of time, we want to be able to say that the rise in online abuse was only a ‘glitch’ in our history.
Glitch!UK began as an online initiative in April 2017 after the Founder and Director, Seyi Akiwowo, faced horrendous online abuse. A video of a speech Seyi gave at the European Parliament went viral and months later Seyi was a target of abuse across multiple social media platforms. The Glitch!UK initiative has been shared in the media, at conferences, mentioned in Parliament and supported by organisations such as Feminist Internet, Plan International and the Anne Frank Trust UK.
Glitch!UK is not about imposing restrictions on how we use social media or censoring our right to free speech and freedom of expression. This submission outlines forms of online abuse including hate speech, its impact and consequences through an intersectional lens. This submission also outlines key recommendations such as digital citizenship education and best practice.
Although the UK does not recognise misogyny as a hate crime, we define misogyny as the hatred of, contempt for, or prejudice against women or girls. We believe it is important to be intersectional when talking about forms online abuse and hate crime, particularly misogynoir. Glitch!UK believes that online abuse can become a dangerous vehicle for movements to further divide society and spread fear so we must work together to #fixtheglitch.
In today’s digital age, the Internet and digital spaces are rapidly creating new social digital spaces and transforming how individuals meet, communicate and interact, and as a result more generally reshaping society as a whole. Most recently digital spaces like social media platforms have become unfriendly, unsafe and toxic, particularly for people of colour (1), women and historically underrepresented groups. Online abuse takes many forms and we have seen a particular increase in online gender based violence (2) and online hate speech (3). We believe this has been a consequence of, and enabled by, a number of events:
- Rise of far right movements across Europe
- Increased polarisation within societies
- Rhetoric used during the UK European Union Independence referendum (4)
- Rhetoric used during recent political elections including the 2016 United States Presidential Election
- The failure of social media companies to adequately and consistently address online abuse as well as ensuring safety of all users
- Lack of diversity within technology and the digital engineering
- Inconsistency within UK laws, requiring policy makers to play catch up with crimes in digital spaces and a gap between international legislations and implementation
- Underreporting of incidents to the police and lack of robust commitment from the criminal justice system to prosecute
The Situation: The Glitch
Digital spaces have been used directly as a tool for making threats of physical and/or sexual violence, rape, killing, hate speech, unwanted and harassing online communications, or even the encouragement of others to harm women and people of colour physically. It may also involve the dissemination of reputation-harming lies, electronic sabotage in the form of spam and malignant viruses, impersonation of the victim online and the sending of abusive emails or spam, blog posts, tweets or other online communications in the victim’s name (5).
Forms of online abuse
Doxing refers to the publication of private information, such as contact details, on the Internet with malicious intent. It includes situations where personal information and data retrieved by a perpetrator is made public with malicious intent, clearly violating the right to privacy.
Trolling is the posting of messages, uploading of images or videos and creation of hashtags for the purpose of annoying, provoking or inciting violence against women and girls. Many “trolls” are anonymous and use false accounts to generate hate speech.
Online mobbing and harassment refer to the online equivalents of mobbing or harassment on social platforms, the Internet, in chat rooms, instant messaging and mobile communications.
Online stalking is the repeated harassment of individuals, perpetrated by means of mobile phones or messaging applications, in the form of crank calls or private conversations on online applications (such as WhatsApp) or in online chat groups.
Online hate speech is a type of speech that takes place online (e.g. the Internet, social media platforms) with the purpose to attack a person or a group on the basis of attributes such as race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disability, or gender.
All the above-mentioned forms of online abuse create a permanent digital record that can be distributed worldwide and cannot be easily deleted, which may result in further victimisation of the individual(s) targeted.
It is important to distinguish from heated debated online and freedom of expression with online abuse and hate speech. Online abuse is not about robust debate. It’s about intentional harassment of individuals to force them to leave the digital space, particularly social media, modify their behaviour and create self-censors. Sending racist abuse, rape threats and sharing a video without someone’s consent are clear red lines. Once we tackle this distinction, then we can turn our attention to the remarks that are not so clear cut.
It is also important to say that social media companies must respect and do more to protect the right of women and diverse groups to express themselves online. We have outlined recommendations in our Fix the Glitch Report: How Social Media Companies can better address online abuse (6).
The Impact of Online Abuse and Online Hate Speech
Online abuse and online hate speech has a significant impact on individuals, communities and our societal values. These consequences can be broken into two key themes: health and wellbeing and democracy and human rights.
Health and Wellbeing
Online abuse has a serious psychological impact with victims reporting stress, anxiety or panic attacks as well as lower self-esteem as a result of the abuse. Amnesty International’s research showed, 67% of women who had experienced abuse or harassment online in the UK stated a feeling of apprehension when thinking about using the internet or social media. Around 1 in 8 young people have been bullied on social media (7) with 57% of young people believing they were bullied because of their appearance, 9% because of their race and 9% because of their sexuality (8). We are also concerned by the increase in the reporting of young suicide and the increase in NHS treatment for self harm cases. Obtaining a breakdown of NHS figures by demographic would provide further insight and clarity.
Democracy and Human Rights
The online world can be seen as either an extension or a mirror of offline realities and therefore violations of human rights and threats to our democracy also happen online. Over a third (34%) of Black, Asian or minority ethnic people (BAME) witnessed or experienced racial abuse in the seven months following the Brexit vote in June 2016, a TUC poll has found (9). In 2017, Metropolitan Police Sergeant said, “Every time there is a terrorist atrocity, we record a peak in hate crimes reported” (10).
Online abuse and online hate speech not only violate a individual’s right to live free from violence and to participate online but also undermine democratic exercise and good governance, and as such create a democratic deficit. Diane Abbott, the UK’s first black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, not only tops the list of MPs for largest number of abusive tweets received, but she received ten times more abuse than any other woman MP. Former East London politician Seyi Akiwowo had a similar experience of unsolicited abuse in response to an online video of her speech at the European Parliament. She explains the emotional impact of the misogynistic and racial abuse:
“I was so overwhelmed by it all. Looking back, even though I went into fighter mode, wellbeing wise – I wasn’t okay. It was obvious that the harassment affected me which is surprising because I have always been a big believer in the saying ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.’ This is so not true. Words hurt and hateful words lead to hateful action,” she says.
Black people reported far more incidents of being harassed online simply for being black, rather than in response to any particular view or comment (11). Many women have contacted Seyi Akiwowo and Diane Abbott telling them they are seriously re-thinking a career in politics because they see the abuse politicians that look similar to them receive.
Democracy only works when representatives reflect their communities and online abuse is becoming an additional barrier for women and people of colour standing for public office positions.
A Tell MAMA report identified 45% of anti-Muslim hate crime took place online, and the organisation is seeing up to 80% of its resources used in monitoring online hate and supporting the victims. Community Security Trust reports 17% of anti-Semitic incidents took place on social media (12). Again, democracy rests on the engagement of all citizens including via online platforms. The reported use of bots by foreign governments and extreme right-wing groups will not only further exacerbate human rights violations and threats to our democracy but cause further divisions and echo chambers.
Digital Citizenship Education Provision
We cannot afford for our generation and the next to become desensitised to any form of hate crimes. We want to cultivate the agency of young people and we want to start a conversation about the importance of our generation being responsible citizens online. Educational institutions should take cyber-bulling more seriously and be supported to respond to bullying driven by any form of hate robustly.
Digital citizenship needs to be central to education, taught universally and from a young age. The need for more intensive delivery of digital citizenship education is now recognised around the world from UNESCO to the House of Lords in the UK. Programmes like Internet Citizens by Institute of Structured Dialogue and Glitch!UK’s Digital Citizenship aim to raise the agency of young people to use digital technology online confidently, respectfully and positively online. Digital citizenship education provides young people with an understanding of the forms of online abuse, including online hate speech, its impacts and consequences. It also prepares young people to navigate a constantly changing digital space as well as build a positive online community.
Elements of Glitch!UK’s Digital Citizenship programme include: Digital etiquette, law and security; digital rights and responsibilities; digital health, wellbeing and critical thinking.
National and Local Governments
Ahead of the UN Elimination of Violence Against Women Day on 25th November, all states and political parties should acknowledge online violence as a form of violence against women (13).
We also recommend that the the UK Government and the Criminal Justice System capture all evidence on online abuse and online hate speech and produce annual reports. The UK Government should make a commitment to the collection of data, on a regular basis, on different forms of online violence against women, people of colour and other diverse groups. This can provide evidence for the development of policy responses and action on the ground.
We recommend that the UK Government ensure social media companies pull in additional resources to moderate their platforms when there has been a major terrorist attack and in the days following.
National and local government can help increase community cohesion in the face of rising hate crime and hate speech by raising awareness of what constitutes as a hate crime, including online hate crime, its impact and the consequences.
Regional governments can join the calls for social media companies to consistently enforce their terms and conditions as well as learn from The Mayor of London’s Online Hate Crime programme. This programme enables detectives to investigate all forms of online hate crime. (14).
In September 2017, Former Home Secretary, Amber Rudd announced a UK-wide online hate crime hub but has been given very few resources and there has been no further announcement. We recommend that the current Home Secretary honours the commitment of his predecessor and priorities a UK- wide online hate crime hub.
Finally devolved governments can create and in some instances enforce an online code of a conduct for their staff, schools and community groups, as well as commission the delivery digital citizenship programmes.
Part of the London Online Hate Crime Hub Programme’s objectives is to train other police officers to better deal with online hate crime. This is vital. Anecdotal evidence suggests that law enforcement is not routinely taking allegations of stalking or coercive control seriously, particularly in relation to online behaviour.
We recommend that all police officers are trained to understand online hate crime, follow recent Crown Prosecution Service guidelines changes, and treat online hate crime as seriously as hate crime committed face to face. New Crown Prosecution Service guidance means stronger penalties for abuse on all social media platforms and hopes to offer more support and protection to victims than ever before.
Organisations, charities, unions and places of work
We can all significantly change the nature, scale, and effect of the intimidation of diverse groups in digital spaces. We recommend that community organisations and charities seek training to better understand online abuse and online hate speech, as well as ensure their organisation have a strong online code of conduct for all their staff, particularly if their organisation have a social media group.
Additional Recommendations and Best Practice
We recommend that hate based on gender, including misogynistic speech, should be considered a hate crime. Internet intermediaries can be more transparent, more diverse and follow a code of conduct to high standards (15).
The General Policy Recommendation No. 15 on combating hate speech of the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) recommends a coherent and comprehensive approach to combating hate speech, covering legal and administrative measures; self-regulatory mechanisms; effective monitoring; victim support; awareness raising and educational measures.
The “Network Enforcement Bill” (19/13013) adopted in Germany on 30 June 2017, calls on Internet providers to asses and remove hate speech content within 24 hours after being reported. Review of complex cases may take one week and can be referred to an independent body of self-regulation. It’s the first example of national authority enforcing legislation on combating illegal hate speech online and many of its modalities are still being shaped. Glitch!UK recommends that the UK Government involves individuals with experience and expertise from protected characteristics to inform policy to ensure freedom of speech for all is protected.
In ECRI’s GPR 15 on Combating Hate Speech recommendations 6 and 7 provide general principles for a self-regulatory body, which should adopt comprehensive code of conduct that can be enforced, be transparent and known, include monitoring and complaints mechanisms with possibility for appeal and ensure sufficient training of staff.
In 2015 the Austrian Government amended the Criminal Code to include online offences like cyber-bullying, cyber-mobbing, online-stalking, insults, hate speech and personal defamations which are now punishable by law (16).
The Portuguese Government has strengthened its cooperation between countries to fight the use of new technologies to commit crimes (17).
The French Government has launched PHAROS, a reporting platform that allows citizens to report on abuse suffered online. Reports are processed by police assigned to the platform (18).
The UK Government can adopt the recommendations in the UN Special Rapporteur’s report, particularly the call to improve gender-disaggregated data on the prevalence and harms of online abuse and this data collection should also be intersectional (19).
Both governments and internet intermediaries should fully resource and support civil society organisations raising awareness, providing support, training and capacity building to women and other historically underrepresented groups.
(1) Pew Research; 1 in 4 black Americans have faced online harassment because of their race or ethnicity: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/07/25/1-in-4-black-americans-have-faced-online-harassment-because-of-their-race-or-ethnicity/
(2) Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences on online violence against women and girls from a human rights perspective: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Women/SRWomen/Pages/AnnualReports.aspx
(3) In 2015/16 it completed 15,442 hate crime prosecutions, the highest number it has ever recorded http://www.report-it.org.uk/files/hate_crime_report_1.pdf
(4) 1 in 3 BAME people have witnessed or experienced racist abuse since Brexit vote, finds TUC poll: https://www.tuc.org.uk/news/1-3-bame-people-have-witnessed-or-experienced-racist-abuse-brexit-vote-finds-tuc-poll
(5) Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences on online violence against women and girls from a human rights perspective: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Women/SRWomen/Pages/AnnualReports.aspx
(6) Fix the Glitch Report: How Social Media Companies can better address online abuse: www.bit.ly/GlitchUKRecommendations
(7) NSPCC Online abuse Facts and statistics https://www.nspcc.org.uk/preventing-abuse/child-abuse-and-neglect/online-abuse/facts-statistics/
(8) Ditch the Label Annual Bullying Survey 2018: https://www.ditchthelabel.org/research-papers/the-annual-bullying-survey-2018/
(9) 1 in 3 BAME people have witnessed or experienced racist abuse since Brexit vote, finds TUC poll: https://www.tuc.org.uk/news/1-3-bame-people-have-witnessed-or-experienced-racist-abuse-brexit-vote-finds-tuc-poll
(10) The Guardian, Hate crime surged in England and Wales after terrorist attacks https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/oct/17/hate-soars-in-england-and-wales
(11)Pew Research; 1 in 4 black Americans have faced online harassment because of their race or ethnicity: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/07/25/1-in-4-black-americans-have-faced-online-harassment-because-of-their-race-or-ethnicity/
(13 )Glitch!UK News + update, https://seyiakiwowo.com/2017/11/30/my-piece-in-labourlist-today-is-the-day-labour-must-renew-its-determination-to-end-online-violence-against-women-and-girls/
(14) Mayor launches new unit to tackle online hate crime 24th April 2017, Press Release https://www.london.gov.uk/press-releases/mayoral/mayor-launches-unit-to-tackle-online-hate-crime
(15) Glitch!UK, Our Recommendations April 2017, https://seyiakiwowo.com/2017/04/13/twitter-and-youtube-do-more-to-deal-with-your-trolls/
(16) European Women’s Lobby Her Net Her Rights Report 2017 https://www.womenlobby.org/IMG/pdf/hernetherrights_report_2017_for_web.pdf
(19) Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences on online violence against women and girls from a human rights perspective 2018 https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Women/SRWomen/Pages/AnnualReports.aspx