Amnesty International and Ipsos MORI recently conducted a poll across eight countries to better understand women’s experiences of online abuse and harassment on social media. Azmina Dhrodia shares the poll’s findings, calling attention to the ways abuse and violence transfer offline and the consequences of not taking action.
You could be sitting at home in your living room, outside of working hours, and suddenly someone is able to send you a graphic rape threat right into the palm of your hand.
Laura Bates, Founder of the Everyday Sexism Project
Every single day, billions of people around the world use social media to connect, debate, learn and share. As well as for everyday communications, social media platforms can help give a voice to the voiceless by raising the profile of some of the most marginalised groups in society. They can also be an important place to address social injustices; just last month we saw women from all over the world use social media platforms and #metoo to expose the violence, abuse and harassment they face offline.
On the other hand, the widespread inequality and discrimination against women that remains embedded in society is increasingly being replicated online. Acts of violence and abuse against women online are an extension of these acts offline.
Anecdotally, we know that online violence and abuse is widespread but there is a lack of quantitative data about the breadth and depth of online abuse women experience and its impact. This is why Amnesty International commissioned Ipsos MORI to carry out an online poll of women aged 18–55 in the UK, USA, Spain, Denmark, Italy, Sweden, Poland and New Zealand about their experiences of online abuse or harassment on social media platforms. The findings of our online poll offer a harrowing insight into the true impact of online abuse against women.
Amnesty found that 23 per cent of the women polled said they experienced abuse or harassment online. In the USA, New Zealand and Sweden, almost 1 in 3 women stated they had experienced online abuse or harassment.
Of the women polled who stated they had experienced abuse or harassment online, 1/4 (26 per cent) had received threats of physical or sexual assault. Almost half (46 per cent) of the women who experienced abuse or harassment said it was sexist or misogynistic in nature.
It’s important to remember that behind every number in this poll is a story. Earlier this year I spoke to Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project. After our conversation, I returned to my desk feeling shaken. It was not the last time during the course of this research that I found myself overwhelmed by what I was hearing.
Laura explained how her experience of online abuse has evolved over the years.
Online abuse began for me when I started the Everyday Sexism Project — before it had become particularly high-profile or I received many entries. Even at that stage, it was attracting around 200 abusive messages per day. The abuse then diversified into other forums, such as Facebook and Twitter messages. These often spike if I’ve been in the media.
Later, in an email, Laura sent me some of the abuse she has received recently, such as,
You still moaning you lazy sack of shit bitch. You have sucked cock, took it up the ass, been banged till you screamed, tell me when I’m lying? Yet you moan at men who are not hot enough or high value enough to approach you or other women. Nice way to make money Ms slut “Everyday Sexism” more like ‘Everyday Crying’.
For many women like Laura who have experienced abuse online, especially in the form of direct or indirect threats of violence, there is a very real fear that such threats of violence will transpire offline.
We found that of the women polled across all countries who experienced abuse or harassment online, almost 60 per cent had received abuse or harassment from complete strangers. Alarmingly, 41 per cent of women who had experienced online abuse or harassment said that on at least one occasion, these online experiences made them feel that their physical safety was threatened.
Pamela Merritt, an American activist and blogger, told me,
After five years of online harassment coupled with offline harassment, I have basically reconciled with the fact that I’m prepared to die for the work I do. That might happen. If you get 200 death threats, it only takes one person who really wants to kill you.
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. 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.
Our findings also support this analysis. On average, 58 per cent of women in the countries polled said they had felt apprehension when thinking about using the internet or social media after experiencing abuse or harassment.
Laura told me:
There is a major psychological impact to reading somebody’s detailed fantasies about raping, assaulting and murdering you, regardless of whether or not you are actually in physical danger. This can take a major toll on women’s lives and careers, particularly if it is a sustained campaign of abuse — it’s a high price to pay for simply doing your job.
Our poll showed that online abuse has a chilling effect on women’s freedom of expression.
Of the women polled who experienced online abuse or harassment, more than three quarters (76 per cent) across all countries made some changes to the way they used social media platforms.
Tackling online violence and abuse on social media platforms and protecting women’s rights online requires resources, transparency and coordinated action from social media companies and governments. It’s time to move beyond mere lip-service and continued acknowledgement of the problem to concrete actions and solutions.
Without urgently addressing this serious human rights issue, we risk further silencing women during a time when their voices — to some extent — are finally being heard.
As Pamela reminded me:
We need to take care of ourselves — emotionally — but this is the front line and we must not cede that space.
About the author
Azmina Dhrodia is a Researcher in the Technology and Human Rights Team at the Amnesty International Secretariat. She is currently investigating the human rights implications of online violence and abuse against women on social media platforms through research and policy analysis of existing international human rights standards, national legislation, company community standards and reporting mechanisms.