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Women in the digital world: The rise of online harassment during the Covid pandemic

Black woman working on computer, engineering

Article by Anya Schiffrin, George Grun and Karolina Koc-Michalska

Women’s existence in the digital world has been closely studied by scholars and caught the attention of activists worldwide.

Women saw early on that the internet could be a powerful and liberating tool that would help them connect with others sharing similar aims and interests. The original hope was that the internet would bring communities together and become a powerful advocacy tool, helping groups to organize for the causes and campaigns they believed in. Online platforms would enable women to protect each other from violence, while putting cellphones in the hands of women in low-income countries would help them integrate economically with the outside world and grow their businesses.

Sadly, it is now understood that sexism pervades life online as much, if not more, than it does offline. Women’s voices are often ignored and belittled, and a constant stream of harassment – from threats of violence and “doxxing” to image-based sexual abuse and sexualized disinformation – has inhibited women’s voices. A report by Plan International, for example, found that 43% of girls surveyed hold back their opinions online for fear of backlash. Female politicians and journalists are particularly vulnerable. The assassinations of British MP Jo Cox in 2017 and Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh in 2018 both followed aggressive campaigns of social media abuse.

Research carried out during the pandemic suggests that, as much of the world moved online, women and non-binary people faced a surge of harassment. One UK study found digital abuse to have risen by 29%, with this figure climbing to 38% for Black and minority women. As the virus confined many to their homes, the hostility of some virtual spaces presented some women with a bleak choice. “Women can only talk to each other about our own lives if we’re able to cope with constant abuse and threats”, one respondent wrote, “It’s better for my mental health to be with no social contact than to try and socialize online.” Parents have also been exposed to a second level of online harassment: as children’s lives went online, cyberbullying skyrocketed on educational platforms, social media and gaming sites. While the psychological impacts of these compounded harms are yet to be seen, we know that for all its life- and sanity-saving applications during the pandemic, the Internet is today a more inhospitable place for women.

With unprecedented levels of Internet use, we might wonder whether the pandemic simply drove existing forms of gendered harassment online. There are reasons, however, to think that misogyny has an especially strong foothold in virtual spaces. It has been found that sexist individuals are more likely than non-sexists to create and share political content. On search engines and social media sites, “algorithmic oppression” renders misogynistic and racist content more discoverable. And the sense of “unidentifiability” experienced online makes users more toxic. “As the result of a hostile environment and distinct socialization patterns,” conclude media researchers Simone Abendschön and Gema García-Albacete, “the online environment imposes additional obstacles to women’s willingness to discuss politics.” Adding insult to injury, the prevailing culture of the web is undermining the very digital tools women need to fight back.

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What can be done to stem the tide of gendered harassment online? One thing is certain: the status quo, whereby tech companies are left to regulate themselves, is not working. Documents published by Facebook (now Meta) whistleblower Frances Haugen reveal internal research by the company attesting to the damaging effects of its platforms on teen girls’ mental health. The Wall Street Journal also reported that the platform’s top policy executive in India, Ankhi Das, personally prevented the removal of hate speech against Muslims posted on Facebook by politicians from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Investigative journalist Rana Ayyub, a critic of Narendra Modi’s BJP and friend of murdered journalist Gauri Lankesh, is being targeted as we speak by a storm of violent threats on Twitter and Facebook.

These stories paint a disturbing picture. But behind specific misdemeanors lie structural flaws in Big Tech’s paradigm for user-generated content moderation. When it comes to AI-based content removal, while some blatant abuse is detected, the explosion of “malign creativity” – the use of coded language and context-based memes – allows much gendered harassment to slip through the net. Investigations by The Verge and Wired have shown, on the other hand, that human content moderators – many of whom live in the Philippines and other parts of the Global South – suffer poor working conditions, low pay and must endure the psychological toll of daily exposure to upsetting and hateful material. Social media platforms also lack a clear definition of “targeted harassment”, often leaving victims without recourse when comments fall below the threshold of hate speech. And, perhaps most significantly, the burden of detecting and reporting abuse, often an exhausting bureaucratic process, falls on victims. “Hours and days are lost weeding through comments, Tweets, and messages,” Sarah Sobieraj writes in Credible Threat, her study of online harassment. “Going to court, filing reports, blocking and reporting – all these strategies sap time.”

Given all this, lawmakers are starting to think about regulating Big Tech. In 2021, Australia introduced an Online Safety Act in 2021 – mandating a set of “basic online safety expectations” for online service providers to be overseen by a designated eSafety commissioner – and the European Union’s equivalent package, the Digital Services Act, entered inter-institutional negotiations this year. Only last month, a bipartisan group in the Senate voted to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, which with luck will dedicate grant funding to organizations fighting digital harassment. These are promising steps, but as European human rights organizations have argued – in a petition to the EU Parliament with more than 30,000 signatures – it is essential that there is legislation that places the needs of victims front and center.

Indeed, digital rights experts have developed a host of policy ideas to protect women and other marginalized groups online. A report from the Wilson Centre urges the creation of a global cross-platform consortium – similar to the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism – to track and respond to gendered abuse online. This would promote the emergence of industry standards, make investigation more efficient, and crucially, give us a better picture of digital gendered abuse in non-Western countries. Nathalie Maréchal and colleagues argue that governments have a golden opportunity, not in making tech companies legally liable for content decisions – a move that could incentivize censorship of online speech – but in vigorously improving corporate governance and bringing media giants in line with their ethical responsibilities. Governance reforms would include the requirement for an independent human rights expert on every company’s board, the empowerment of investor oversight, and the disclosure of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) impacts. Finally, as numerous campaigners have advocated, fighting online harassment must become easier: legal proceedings should be made cheaper and simpler, users must have straightforward channels of communication with online platforms, and companies should transition to incident-based reporting systems where victims of abuse can log their experiences in detail.

We must continue to celebrate the struggles and hard-won triumphs of women worldwide. In recent years, many of these have played out online: the calling out of sexual harassment by the #MeToo movement, the fight for intersectional feminism during the Black Lives Matter campaign, or the #IWillGoOut campaign for gender equality in India. Coming out of the pandemic, we must fight for an Internet that is better and safer for women, and true to its original promise.

About the authors

Anya Schiffrin Is the director of the Technology, Media and Communications  specialization at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Karolina Koc-Michalska is Professor at the Communication and Culture Department,  Audencia Business School, Nantes, Associated Researcher at CEVIPOF – Sciences-Po, Paris and Associate Professor at Silesia University, Poland.

George Grun is a freelance writer and researcher with an MPhil in Philosophy from the University of Cambridge.