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.

Complete our survey on the gendered impact of Covid19 now

Glitch calls for social media companies to respond to Black Lives Matter through new content controls

Today Glitch is calling for social media companies to change their settings in light of the recent proliferation of violent images on their platforms.

Videos and images capturing the brutalisation of Black people are being posted frequently on social media sites. Some social media companies have basic settings which users can implement that are meant to control the display of violent material. However, in recent weeks these settings have failed as images of both Desmond Ziggy Mombeyarara’s violent arrest and George Floyd’s murder are still circulating on social media without warnings or options to pre-filter this content.

To push for action, today Glitch formally launches a petition in partnership with Change.org urging social media companies to provide greater controls on violent content through the blurring of violent images, and warning users that the content they are about to see may be graphic.

Instagram has implemented this feature on their stories. However, Instagram posts, Facebook stories and posts, Twitter posts and TikTok content all lack these settings.

Glitch Founder and Executive Director, Seyi Akiwowo said:

“Being continuously exposed, without consent or warning, to the last moment’s of Black people’s lives is incredibly disturbing and unsafe for all users, particularly Black communities. Research has shown a quarter of people who see content of violent events develop symptoms of PTSD.”

“As Glitch, a charity dedicated to making the online space safe, we’re calling on all tech companies to better serve Black communities online, not only bombarded by traumatic and graphic content but also dealing with disproportionate amounts of online abuse and violence. . Tech companies must fulfill their duty to protect their users’ welfare by blurring and warning users about graphic content that they’re about to see. ”

“We at Glitch champion digital citizenship- digital rights as well as digital responsibility and that includes all social media companies playing their part. That’s why we are calling on tech companies to take responsibility on their platform and ensure all users are safe by moving towards safety by design then just design for profit.
“Giving all users greater control of their online experiences is a step in the right direction. Just as there are efforts to keep users safe from beheadings, terrorist attacks and animal cruelty, we are calling on tech comapnies to give users a choice about whether we want to engage with images of the brutalisation of Black people or not.

“Social media companies have a responsibility toward their users and to our society as a whole. We need action from these platforms urgently to respect the lives of Black people, because of Black Lives Matter.”

/Ends

Notes for editors
For more information, please contact Casey Calista at caseycalista@gmail.com or on 07419 989055

The petition can be found here: https://www.change.org/BLMonlinetoo

Full details of Glitch’s work around Black Lives Matter can be found here: fixtheglitch.org/BLM

Glitch is a charity working towards ending online abuse, increasing digital citizenship and aiming to “fix the glitch” in our digital space. We run workshops across the country on digital citizenship, digital resilience and digital self care, of which over 3,500 young people, and 100 individuals in public life have participated in. We also have presented to the 28th UN Human Rights Council on Online Violence Against Women.

Glitch’s written evidence on the impact of Covid-19

Glitch, as part of The Centenary Action Group (CAG), has submitted written evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee Inquiry into COVID-19 and the impact on people with protected characteristics. The CAG is a cross-party campaigning coalition representing over 100 activists, politicians and women’s rights organisations working together to eradicate the barriers that prevent a diverse range of women from taking part in the decisions that affect their lives. Alongside Glitch, members include the Fawcett Society, Women for Refugee Women, Girlguiding and political party affiliated women’s groups.

The impacts of COVID-19 are likely to have disproportionate effects on women & exacerbate intersectional inequalities in both the short and long-term. Policymakers must consult with a range of women’s organisations and include women in response and recovery decision-making, centring the experiences of women with multiple protected characteristics, such race, disability and religion.

CAG’s recommendations to the government address domestic violence, healthcare, sex-disaggregated data, economic impact, the position of migrant women, women in immigration detention and Glitch’s focus; online abuse.

Online Abuse
The use of digital spaces has increased significantly in light of COVID-19, and with it has come reports of an increase in abuse and harassment online. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a 2017 online poll by Amnesty International found that one in five women in the UK had suffered online abuse or harassment. It is also well-established that online abuse disproportionately affects women with intersecting identities whereby female politicians and journalists of colour were found to be 34 percent more likely receive abuse on Twitter than their white counterparts. New trends of targeted online abuse and harassment have been reported as more people spend time online. For example, there has been a rise in ‘zoombombing’, whereby “uninvited attendees share hateful and graphic material, often including pornographic, racist and anti-Semitic images in Zoom video conferences”. This requires the sociotechnical vulnerabilities of new and emerging tech platforms to be urgently assessed and the collection of data for such reports of online harassment. This should be conducted by tech platforms and monitored by government.

Research by Girlguiding shows that online abuse and harassment is an issue that particularly affects girls and young women. 50% of girls aged 11-21 think sexism is worse online than it is offline (2016), and 25% of girls and young women aged 11-21 had threatening things said about them on social media (2018). Given this, in the current situation, girls and young women are at a higher risk of experiencing harassment and abuse online and could be exposed to unwanted sexual imagery and harmful content.

Glitch is calling on the government to address online abuse against women through education, enforcement of existing laws and policies and to empower civil society organisations in the upcoming Online Harms Bill. Glitch also supports Lord McNally’s private members bill and amendment to the Online Harms White Paper to include ‘hatred by sex’ as part of the definition of ‘online harm’ presented in the Online Harms white paper. Government earlier this year already made a commitment to this.

With many people now transitioning to remote working online, swift efforts must also be taken to address potential vectors for harassment and abuse online in the online workplace. Accordingly, the government should implement the International Labour Organisation Convention 190 on Eliminating Violence and Harassment in the World of Work. Furthermore, companies need to implement their own strategies relating to online harassment and domestic abuse.

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First UK charity to hold online party – put on by digital citizenship organisation Glitch

Glitch, the UK’s leading charity against online abuse, is set to become one of the first charities in the UK to hold an online party for supporters in light of the lockdown restrictions.

On Monday 13th at 3pm, Glitch will be holding an online party for supporters to celebrate their achievements over the past three years. 

Focusing on ending online abuse, championing digital citizenship and holding tech companies to account, Glitch is using this birthday party as an opportunity for its audience and supporters to also see how the internet can bring people together and be used for positivity during this time. The use of digital spaces has increased significantly in light of Covid-19, digital citizenship is more important than ever before, and Glitch is leading on this by presenting fun, but practical ways of connecting digitally whilst practicing good digital citizenship. 

Glitch runs workshops equipping people with the skills they need for digital citizenship, with 99% of participants saying that they would recommend their workshop to someone else, and over 70% of respondents felt confident using tools and systems to protect themselves online. 

Glitch Gounder and Executive Director, Seyi Akiwowo, said “We are proud to celebrate the achievements that Glitch has made over the past three years – from training thousands of people on digital citizenship to presenting at the United Nations. 

“The internet can be an immense force for good. We are excited to be one of the first charities to host this type of event. We’re also developing our response to covid-19 and continuing to work on other digital events including workshops and discussions highlighting the positive impacts of technology with good digital citizenship.” 

Supporters joining the online celebrations will also have the opportunity to chat with the Glitch team and listen to some great music on the bank holiday. DJ Tomiwa will be playing music requests for guests. DJ Tomiwa is a British-Nigerian DJ who prides himself on versatility. Since starting his DJing journey in 2012, he has rocked countless crowds of varying ages and backgrounds, including large concerts and international events, with over one million plays on Youtube.

Glitch reacts to announcement of Ofcom becoming the social media regulator

Glitch welcomes the announcement of Ofcom being given more powers to regulate social media. We hope that this is the first step in the government committing more to do more to end online abuse and improve digital spaces. 

Glitch Founder and Executive Director, Seyi Akiwowo said:

“It is great to see that Ofcom’s powers will be extended to internet safety and that social media firms will be held to account over online abuse. This is long overdue, but it is a step in the right direction. The extension of Ofcom’s powers is key in making sure that there is an ability for action to be taken more quickly as new threats emerge. 

“Glitch’s advocacy focuses on working with the government and tech companies to make online spaces safer for all users. We call on the government and Ofcom to take into account disproportionate levels of abuse that marginalised communities face. 

“In the UK, Amnesty International found that around a quarter of women polled experienced harassment on social media platforms. For women with multi-intersecting identities, such as women of colour, LGBT+ women, and disabled women, it’s even worse. 

“Whilst this announcement is exactly what is needed to start to tackle online abuse, we look forward to seeing the full response in the spring. In addition to this move to further regulate our online spaces, we also need the government to take a leading role in positively reinforcing good digital citizenship. We continue to call on the government to commit to truly investing in digital citizenship education funded through a 1% tax on tech companies.”

Free Digital Self Care Webinar for Politically Active Womxn

Learn vital digital self care, safety and security techniques in just one hour.

To mark EVAW Day, 16 Days of activism and in response to the high levels of online abuse cited by political candidates and outgoing MPs, the Centenary Action Group is hosting Glitch’s digital self care webinar.

Are you a woman in public life wishing to have a flourishing online presence but still wish to keep your personal private? Do you avoid social media because of the fear of online abuse? Then this webinar is for you!

Glitch is offering you the chance to experience its esteemed Digital Resilience Training. Our training is tailored to women and girls who are currently in or considering leadership roles, public appointments or public life and activism, who wish to have a positive online presence without suffering the negative impact of online abuse. Whether you’re a YouTuber, influencer or activist your online life shouldn’t come at the expense of your wellbeing.

Statistics consistently show that globally women are 27 times more likely to be harassed online, and this number increases significantly for women of colour, making it crucial for women to be educated about the issue and empowered to defend themselves against abuse and report the perpetrators effectively. In this one hour webinar you will learn vital Digital Self-Defence techniques, including how to effectively document abuse.

You will also learn about the importance of implementing Digital Self-Care and sticking to it. You will learn how to set and stick to personal digital boundaries and have a flourishing online presence without compromising on your health or happiness. You’ll come away with practical tools and increased control over your online presence, resulting in a happier, healthier relationship with the digital space.

As online gender-based violence (OGBV) is an issue that disproportionately affects women and girls with multi-intersecting identities and marginalised communities, Glitch would like to extend a particularly warm welcome to individuals from these groups.

Please complete this short interest survey to receive more details on how to join at 1pm on Monday 2nd December.

Will your candidates help fix the glitch?

This general election offers an opportunity for all political parties to explicitly support equality for women. Women’s lives have changed significantly in the last 50 years but there is still lots of work to do.

Glitch is proud to be part of a coalition of 30 organisations striving for gender equality and women’s human rights. We call on candidates from across the political spectrum to adopt policies in this Women and Girls 2019 manifesto to redress the imbalances in our society that harm all women and girls, especially those who are further marginalised by race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation or disability. We call on candidates to commit to:

Ensuring the new duty of care on online companies to protect their users includes tackling sexual harassment, bullying and violence that disproportionally affects girl sand women, and ensuring online safety for all women and girls, acknowledging the intersectional nature and impact of this discrimination by requiring service providers to fund comprehensive digital citizenship education for users across the UK.

Let’s make this general election about online safety and justice for all women and girls online. Ask your candidates today: how will you improve the lives of all women and girls online? #GE2019WomenandGirls #GE2019 @glitchuk_

Online abuse: addressing new forms of control

Glitch recently had the opportunity to work with our friends at Safe. We wrote about online abuse and how it pervades our offline lives from the lens of domestic abuse. You can read our article below and we encourage you to subscribe to their newsletter, where you can read more content like this.

 

Glitch Featured on The Rundown by HuffPost

Why should we care about cyberflashing?

If you exposed yourself to someone on the street, you’d be arrested for flashing. So why are people so comfortable with doing it online? HuffPost UK reporter Sophie Gallagher explains why we should care about cyberflashing in this episode of The Rundown, joined by our very own Seyi Akiwowo, Glitch Executive Director and Founder. Watch the video below to find out more:

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