Combating online abuse: Whose job is it anyway?

Engender's Communications and Administration Assistant Maxine Blane recently attended a Glitch workshop on digital self-care and self-defence. Here she reflects on her experiences and the work being done around women's digital equality.

Being online has become an inextricable piece of how we engage and participate in public life. Even if you have proudly resisted the siren call of all the cat videos on social media, the internet is required to access information, apply for jobs and social security, enhance education and maintain contact with friends, family and professional acquaintances.

For women and girls on the internet, online abuse and harassment is not a new phenomenon. Writing in 1995, (two years before my family would get our first ‘net-connected’ computer), feminist journalist and academic Sue Innes wrote that for women, the internet “was a new medium with an old message: keep out.” Since then, online abuse and harassment have only spread and adapted, welcoming the rise of the new mediums of social media and becoming endemic across these platforms.

Women are 27 times more likely to be harassed online, and 1 in 14 tweets sent to women journalists in the UK and US is abusive or ‘problematic’. In Scotland, a recent Girlguiding survey showed that 27% of girls had experienced sexual harassment on social media, and that 68% of girls said they felt they had to change how they behave to fit in when they are online. When racism intersects with misogyny, the figures become even more chilling: black women are 84% more likely to be mentioned in abusive tweets, and in a study of online abuse of politicians, MP Diane Abbott infamously received almost half of all abuse directed at female MPs.

At the end of last month, as temperatures rose across the country, I was in the basement of London’s City Hall for a workshop on digital self-care and self-defence, while a gathered crowd watched the Tour de France in the open-air amphitheatre outside. The workshop was run by Glitch, which is a not-for-profit organisation founded by Seyi Akiwowo in 2017 with a focus on ending online abuse. They want "to see an increase in digital citizenship across all online users and to instil these beliefs: that our online community is as real as our offline one and that we should all be working together to make it a better place."

For a couple of hours in blessed air-conditioning, our small group explored how to know your rights online and how to safely be an active bystander, as well as how to document and report online abuse. The backbone of the workshop was the concept of ‘being a good digital citizen’, and in the era of fake news, fraud, and far-right activism, the need to be digitally literate custodians of our data and privacy could not be more clear.

So far, so sensible. However, while taking care of your data is good advice for anyone with an online presence, the advice given to women who receive or report online abuse is often far less helpful. Back in 1995, Sue Innes noted that “Advice on how to avoid ‘net harassers’ has a strangely familiar ring: we must be careful about what messages we post and where, and write in ways that cannot be open to misinterpretation.” She highlighted the similar(ly poor) advice often given to women about their physical safety: “Don’t walk home late, and if you wear a skirt that short what do you expect”.

A quick Google search will offer scores of accounts of women who have reported abuse, either to the platform itself or to the authorities, being told to ‘just log off’ or to ignore threats made against their livelihoods and sometimes even lives. Women who’ve received abuse online often alter their online behaviour – no longer posting about a location or event until they have left, or censoring the views or opinions they express online. Putting the onus on women to protect themselves online smacks of victim-blaming, and adds to the mental load and ‘safety work’ that women must do to exist in public spaces.

Crucially, putting the responsibility for avoiding online abuse and harassment on the women and girls who receive it removes that duty from the platforms where the abuse occurs. The sexism and misogyny prevalent in the tech industries ensure that inequality is baked into the design of social media, and poor or non-existent reporting mechanisms do little to curb the spread of online abuse, especially when directed at minority groups.

Work is underway to combat inaction on abuse from social media platforms, and organisations like Glitch are keen to see platforms take responsibility. Last year, Amnesty International launched their Toxic Twitter report, a damning indictment of Twitter as “a platform where violence and abuse against [women] flourishes, often with little accountability.” In the report, prominent politicians (including Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon), writers, and activists shared their experiences of abuse on the platform and called for action.

Women are organising against online abuse and harassment in other ways, too. Ahead of the European elections earlier this year, the European Women’s Lobby co-ordinated #HerNetHerRights training across Europe on online abuse for women political candidates and activists involved in the elections. As well as practical training on what to do when experiencing online abuse, the training highlights that “violence against women in the digital space is a part of the continuum of violence against women and not a separate phenomenon.” In Scotland, the Empower Project are currently exploring how tech abuse impacts different communities, and their ‘Don’t Be a Dick’ campaign gathered women’s experiences of cyberflashing and called on policy makers and practitioners to take cyberflashing (which has been a crime in Scotland since 2010) seriously.

At Engender, we explored the internet as a public space in our Gender Matters Roadmap, and called for women in Scotland to be able to access and participate in all areas of online space without harassment by 2030. Last summer, I spoke briefly about online abuse and harassment, alongside Amnesty Scotland director Naomi McAuliffe and Engender’s director Emma Ritch and communications manager Alys Mumford, on our On the Engender podcast, which you can listen to here.

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