Posted on November 20, 2017
In order to end online violence against all women and girls there needs to be a global movement of activists, organisations, policy-makers, individuals, law enforcement and social media companies raising awareness of the issues of online abuse and working to fix this glitch. There’s also a need for mobilising and working in partnership with other organisations, activists and survivors to amplify our voices, increase our impact and avoid duplication.
That is why after Everyday Sexism’s Laura Bates email introduced me to Azmina Dhrodia, Researcher, Technology and Human Rights at Amnesty and her research assignment into online abuse and harassment I was more than willing to help where I can. There was some initial hesitation because who wants to receive a storm of abuse twice in a lifetime let alone twice in a year. However, my experience is an example of the experience many women particularly women of colour face online and it’s a story that doesn’t get heard too often. Therefore I felt the responsibility to bring context to the research.
Amnesty International commissioned an IPSOS MORI poll which looked at the experiences of women between the ages of 18 and 55 in Denmark, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, Spain, Sweden, the UK and USA.
23% of the women surveyed across these eight countries said they had experienced online abuse or harassment at least once, ranging from 16% in Italy to 33% in the US. 22% of women in the UK experienced online abuse one or more times. Online violence & abuse magnified for women from ethnic minority backgrounds.
Online abuse has a silencing or censoring effect on women with more than 3/4 (76%) of women across the eight countries who had experienced abuse or harassment on social media making some changes to the way they use social media platforms as a result.
Online abuse can manifest in different ways including threats of violence, privacy violations or sexist and misogynistic comments. Of women polled who had experienced online abuse or harassment, more than a quarter (26%) said they had received threats of physical or sexual assault
Online abuse can have a serious psychological impact with women reporting stress, anxiety or panic attacks as well as lower self-esteem as a result of the abuse. Around two-thirds of women who had experienced abuse or harassment online in the UK (67%) stated a feeling of apprehension when thinking about using the internet or social media.
In the UK 90% of women agree that online abuse is harmful to women. These responses show that for so many women around the world, the internet is simply not a safe space.
The psychological implications of experiencing online abuse remains under-researched, and as a result, understated. There is a misconception that because the abuse is online it can simply be ignored or shrugged off. However, in the UK and US, more than 3 times as many woman disagree (63% and 61%) than agree (19% in both countries) that online abuse and harassment can be stopped by just ignoring it.
The assumption that online abuse is not ‘real’ also fails to consider the myriad of harms caused by online violence and abuse that ultimately contributes to women being silenced and denied their right to freely express themselves online.
Dr. Emma Short, a Psychologist and Reader in Cyber Psychology at the University of Bedfordshire, talked to me about the impact of online abuse. She explained,
“I think the impact of online abuse is greater because your victimization is broadcast for everyone to see. It’s often joined by a third party so the crowd or pack is going after you. So, very quickly, it feels as though the whole world is after you. There might be positive tweets, you might have lots of friends on the outside, but if the crowd has turned against you and is after you, it feels like the world wishes you harm.”
Almost 1/3, or 32%, of the women polled who use Facebook stated that the company’s response to dealing with abuse or harassment online was inadequate.
Twitter did not fare much better. Almost 30% of women polled who are Twitter users stated the company’s response to abuse or harassment was inadequate, including 43% of women users in the UK.
So what next?
Research like this is important as it provides evidence of the online violence millions of women are facing. It is therefore important for policy-makers and social media companies to support, invest and respond to the research.
Women like Laura Bates Founder of Everyday Sexism and Pamela Merritt Co-Founder of Reproaction have shared their experiences, organisation such as Amnesty International, Plan International and NSPCC have provided great research and statistics to support these experiences, so what is going to happen next? How will social media companies and governments action on this compelling research?
We need to immediately acknowledge that that language matters, words are powerful and hateful words can be used to mobilise against a group of people. Therefore, we must challenge the rhetoric of “oh it’s just words, ignore them” by instead saying “no words do have an impact and negative online activity can and does extend into real world.” Social media companies must be held more accountable and be transparent with how they self-regulate and enforce their own rules.
As we embark on International Day of the Elimination of Violence Against Women on 25th November Government leaders, organisations and activists officially acknowledge Online Violence Against Women and Girls (OVAWG). The UK Government should lead the way in combating OVAWG.
We need specific educational training workshops, for young people so they can understand what online abuse means, it’s impact and how they can be better online citizens. Training workshops for those that work with and look after young people is also required to help them spot the signs rather than just banning website and phones in schools. Instead teachers, parents, carers and those that work with young people need support in order to provide young people with the tools to be able to help young people be better online citizens.
There needs to be training workshops for local police officers so they are supporting those that willing to report and take action against online abuse and harassment. I’m pleased that in April this year, Sadiq Khan launched the Online Hate Crime Hub. My online abuse case was escalated to one of the fantastic Detective Inspectors who managed my case diligently. These key skills need to be shared to those front line police officers like those that manage our local police stations.
Finally, but by no means least, we must train online tech companies and those developing new apps and social media platforms. They must learn from the mistakes and glitches of current social media platforms. There are current attempts to fix the online abuse glitch within these sites and apps but moving forward we should have new apps and new social media platforms that don’t have these glitches in the first place.
Finally but by no means least, we must train online tech companies and those developing new apps and social media platforms. They must learn from the mistakes and glitches of current social media platforms. What this research, campaigns and Community Guidelines reform attempt to fix the online abuse glitch within these sites and apps. Moving forward we should aim to have apps and new social media platforms that don’t have these glitches in the first place.