If you thought online abuse was bad, then COVID-19 has made it a whole lot worse
COVID-19 has led to an epidemic of online abuse, putting women and minorities at risk. We need to do more to tackle the proliferation of tech-facilitated harms.
In mid-March, hospitalised COVID-19 patient Tara Jane Langston filmed a video on her phone warning of the danger of under-estimating the threat of the virus. The video of the young woman struggling to breathe was shared with a group of friends on WhatsApp, before making its way to Twitter, where it went viral. Within minutes, Tara’s family was flooded with abusive messages from around the world. A few days later, a global Muslim network of civil society organisations held a Zoom call about maintaining spirituality during coronavirus, when abusive messages and racial slurs started appearing on screen.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused severe disruption to everyday lives across the world in the last few weeks, leading to long called-for lifestyle changes, including widespread shift to remote working. Living rooms, kitchen tables and gardens turned into improvised workplaces, while sociability for millions took the shape of Friday night drinks on Zoom and virtual pub quizzes. In the space of a few days, our lives largely moved online. In the early days of the pandemic, countries in lockdown across the world saw an increase in Internet usage of between 12 and 15%. Increased time spent online has multiplied opportunities for online abuse and harassment, against a backdrop of thriving online conspiracy theories and disinformation about the pandemic.
Before COVID-19, we – alongside other activists and researchers – documented how the Internet became a toxic place for women and marginalised communities. One in five women has suffered from online abuse in the UK, according to a study by Amnesty International, while an investigation by BBC Newsnight last year uncovered widespread abuse against female activists, politicians, and journalists across Europe. Black female MPs are also 84% more likely to experience online abuse in comparison to white women. As our lives have moved to the digital space, we need to be better prepared to respond to the heightened risk of abuse faced by women and marginalised communities.
Firstly, reliable data on the scale of the problem remains scarce. Beyond the headlines, we do not know the true scale of the problem. Across the world, we have seen an increase of domestic violence (which often involves abuse via technology). In the UK women’s refuges have seen an exponential increase in calls for help. But beyond headlines and high profile cases of abuse and harassment, the true scale of the problem remains misunderstood. Reliable data about the scale and extent of gender-based online abuse in times of COVID-19 is severely lacking. We are responding to this data by launching a new survey into the online experiences of women and non-binary people.
Understanding the problem is the first step in mounting an adequate response. Not only is the problem misunderstood, but we are also lacking resources and are ill-prepared to tackle the issue. The Internet is a fast-evolving space, and COVID-19 has shown how tech vulnerabilities can be easily exploited by ill-intentioned actors to abuse and harass vulnerable groups. Platforms whose user base has grown as a result of the pandemic – including the ubiquitous Zoom or Google Hangouts – have become hubs for new forms of online abuse. “Zoom Bombing” – the publication of violent, graphic, racist or otherwise abusive content – on the video conferencing app Zoom, has been one of the unforeseen consequences of the pandemic.
Tech companies are several steps behind in their response. In early April, Zoom CEO issued an apology for the platform’s security lapses and announced new measures after the company’s shares fell. Tech companies have vowed to do more to tackle the online harms created by COVID-19, including combatting disinformation. As human content moderation resources have been axed for health reasons, and tech companies have come to rely more on AI, there is potential for abusers and malign actors to exploit the platforms’ vulnerabilities.
We need tech companies to do more and invest more in content moderation, but the government also has a role to play to prevent the proliferation of online abuse. Education to digital safety, more needed than ever, remains under-funded and needs increased resources, as different professional sectors adapt to the realities of doing business online. As recent reports of sexual harassment by students on their fellow classmates have shown, UK schools are universities are struggling to cope with the new risks posed by online teaching. Employers who have had to negotiate transitions to remote working, are ill-prepared to protect employees from online harms.
The government has a responsibility to provide guidance to employers on how to keep employees safe while working from home, and adopt legislation that enhances employee safety. So far, the UK has not ratified the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 190, which sets out a framework to eliminate violence and harassment in the workplace.
Tech abuse can no longer be an unintended consequence of engaging with online spaces. The COVID-19 pandemic will impact our society for years to come. With social distancing fast becoming the new normal, we will continue to rely on social media and the Internet more for every day’s activities. Online safety can no longer be an afterthought.