The Impact of Online Abuse
Online abuse is a serious and potentially life-threatening issue with real repercussions for victims as well as their family, friends and local communities. Common consequences:
- Online abuse tends to cause harm to a person’s mental health and wellbeing and has led to increases in self-harm, anxiety and suicide.
- Online abuse may threaten someone’s physical integrity or could encourage others to carry out a physical attack.
- Online abuse has a “silencing effect” on all its victims, but particularly on marginalised groups like women and girls. Social media platforms are often critical spaces for individuals to exercise the right to freedom of expression. However, according to Amnesty International, online violence and abuse are a direct threat to this freedom of expression and access to information. Upon suffering online abuse, many women and girls may be forced to abandon their profiles and 76% of women who experienced abuse or harassment on a social media platform changed to the way they use the platforms. Many of them (32%) even stop posting content that expressed their opinion on certain issues.
- Online abuse ends up preventing women and girls from accessing relevant information, expressing their opinions and participating in public debates which in turn negatively impacts on both progress towards gender equality and our democracy.
Human Rights and Democracy
Globally, women are 27 times more likely to be harassed online. The online world is an extension or, in some ways, 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 (1). Online abuse not only violates an individual’s right to live free from violence and to participate online but also undermines democratic exercises and good governance and, as such, creates a democratic deficit.
Black people reported far more incidents of being harassed online simply for being black, rather than in response to any particular view or comment (2). Many women have shared with us that they are seriously re-thinking a career in politics after witnessing the abuse that politicians that look similar to them receive.
Evidence shows that some people are even withdrawing from social media completely. Plan International’s research revealed that 43% of girls closed down their social media accounts due to abuse online. (9). This may seem sensible in the short term, but by the same logic would we recommend that people encountering abuse in the real world withdraw from all social spaces as a solution to the problem? This could lead to them being excluded, deprived of job opportunities, leaving them isolated and lonely. Social media is here to stay and performs many beneficial functions, however we need to reform rather than recommending that those at risk of abuse simply hide from it.
Health and Wellbeing
The psychological impact of online abuse upon those affected is considerable, with victims reporting stress, anxiety or panic attacks as well as lower self-esteem as a result. Amnesty International’s research showed that 67% of women who had experienced abuse or harassment online in the UK experienced apprehension when thinking about using the internet or social media. Around 1 in 8 young people have been bullied on social media (5), with 57% of young people believing they were bullied because of their appearance, 9% because of their race and 9% because of their sexuality (6). We are also concerned by the increase in youth suicides and increased demand for NHS treatment of self harm cases. Obtaining a breakdown of NHS figures by demographic would provide further insight and clarity.
We’ve had to create space and a process within our workshops for young people who become upset when remembering their own experiences of online bullying, or that of a friend. We have noticed a particular increase in this type of response when delivering in female-only workshops.
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 diverted towards monitoring online hate and supporting its 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.
PROTECT + REPORT: HOW CAN WE BE SAFER ONLINE AND HOW CAN WE REPORT ONLINE ABUSE?
Talking about safety measures may seem overwhelming or difficult for many people, especially if they haven’t talked about this before or don’t know a lot about online safety. So try to introduce the topic broadly to begin with, rather than immediately going into detailed, technical specifics about digital security. Remember to talk about how we can support friends and family online.
3 Top Tips on Online Safety and Privacy:
- Strong passwords for your social media and email accounts should be long, difficult and changed frequently. Set a regular reminder and you can use secure websites like LastPass to store your passwords.
- Where possible, set two-step verifications on your social media and email accounts. Two-step verification asks for a code from an app or texts you a number to enter when you or someone else tries to log in to your account from an unfamiliar browser or computer.
- Familiarising yourself with privacy settings. Privacy settings should be set so you are not inadvertently sharing personal information with strangers or potential perpetrators. Sharing of personal information on social media should be well thought through.
Who can you report online abuse to and how? :
This point of the conversation is where discussion partners can share who they can report online abuse to. It’s important to note that some online abuse tactics may be civil and some may be criminal.
- To the social media company. Most online social media platforms have their own reporting tools, which allow users to inform the companies if online abuse takes place. However, most social media platform policies on online abuse have yet to be implemented effectively. This means that while reporting to them is an important step in highlighting OGBV, the appropriate measures may not always be enforced.
- To your local police team. When it comes to reporting to the authorities or taking legal action documentation of harassment via social media, email or messaging app will be needed.
- The UK Safer Internet Centre has a new tool on Reporting Online Harmful Content
- To your line manager or trusted adult, it is important not to deal with online abuse alone.