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To stop online abuse against women, we must reform digital spaces

Web Foundation · April 13, 2021

This piece was written by Azmina Dhrodia and originally published by Thomson Reuters Foundation.

While we can’t quickly unwind the sexism that drives abuse, we can redesign our digital spaces and change the online environments that allow this misogyny to thrive, writes Azmina Dhrodia.

(Editor’s note: contains language that some readers may find offensive)

“I get called a whore, that I’m a slut, that I should put my tits away, that I’m unintelligent, that I should go away and bake a cake instead – which was my personal favourite “.

Misogynistic online abuse, in this case targeting a UK Labour Party member, is shocking, but not surprising. For all the progress made on gender equality, we still live in a world where women are regularly attacked in public spaces, physical and digital.

The killing of Sarah Everard and the murder of seven women in Atlanta are just the latest atrocities reminding us of the real and present danger of violent misogyny. An estimated 66,000 women and girls are killed across the world every year.

This violence reminds women that we’re at constant risk. It’s at the back of our mind when we’re cat-called, followed home by a stranger or have our crotch grabbed in the street (these have all happened to me — they’re not rare). And because we fear that everyday harassment could escalate into something so much worse, women develop strategies for avoiding danger in public spaces.

But this fear is not just something we feel in physical spaces. The digital world has become a new front in the assault on the freedom and power of women. Being online while female means being disproportionately at risk of abuse. And when you’re a woman of colour or LGBT+ — or both — the abuse can be even worse.

Globally 38% of women have reported being personally subject to online violence according to the latest numbers from the Economist Intelligence Unit. This rises to 45% for Gen Zs and Millennials. This is consistent with a Web Foundation survey which found 52% of young women and girls had experienced abuse online.

This abuse isn’t less serious because it happens behind a screen. Impersonation, defamation, threats of physical and sexual violence, the non-consensual sharing of images — all of these can have devastating consequences for the reputations and the physical and mental health of those targeted. It can cost women their jobs and damage relationships.

Even when threats made online are not carried out, the fear that they will be is enough to push us to the margins and stop us participating online. Despite its many opportunities, too many girls are growing up learning that the internet is yet another place to be afraid.

As in the physical world, we are forced to build strategies to protect ourselves online. That can mean changing screen names, thinking twice about posting content, and making accounts private. It can be avoiding certain topics or forums or logging off and leaving platforms altogether.

The internet is one of the most powerful platforms for opportunity, sharing ideas and building community the world has ever seen, but women and girls are too often silenced and censored because they fear the repercussions of speaking out. This is a grave threat to progress on gender equality. When women have less space online, they have less space in newsrooms, boardrooms and the halls of political power.

Any woman journalist knows what I mean. 73% of female reporters have experienced online abuse according to a UNESCO survey. Another survey found 40% of women journalists avoided reporting on certain stories because of anticipated abuse. When leading reporters have to step back from their work because of sustained attacks online, what does that say to young women and girls considering a career in the field? We risk losing the voices of the next generation.

Politics is no different. In the last UK election, a number of leading women MPs pointed to online abuse as a significant reason they wouldn’t run again. In Finland, the election of a women-led coalition government was swiftly followed by an onslaught of misogynistic online harassment, leading some women to reconsider a career in public service.

In politics and journalism, as elsewhere, you’re especially likely to be attacked if you’re a Black woman — literally 10x as likely. An Amnesty study I worked on found that Black journalists and politicians in the UK and US were 84% more likely than white women to receive abusive tweets.

These attacks on women in the public sphere is just the tip of an iceberg of digital abuse that women and girls all across the world are forced to endure. When half of society is less able to share ideas and express themselves online, this is not just a women’s issue — it’s everyone’s problem.

While we can’t quickly unwind the misogyny and sexism that drives this abuse, we can redesign our digital spaces and change the online environments that allow misogyny to thrive.

Today’s internet is dominated by a relatively small number of companies that shape the online experience of billions of people. When they fail to consider women’s experiences on their platforms, the consequences are enormous. By the same token, by developing effective solutions to tackle this abuse, they can make huge progress towards enabling everyone to fully participate online.

That’s why the Web Foundation is establishing a Tech Policy Design Lab to bring companies together with governments and civil society to create product and policy solutions to deal with the biggest technology challenges of our time, starting with online gender-based violence.

Following Sarah Everard’s killing, we’ve heard a slew of policy proposals to improve women’s safety in physical spaces, from erecting more lampposts to putting police officers in nightclubs, that are at best inadequate and at worst harmful. Women’s experiences need to be the centre of policy and product solutions, which is why our Tech Policy Design Lab is designed to put those most impacted by online abuse front and center when designing safer online spaces.

We have an opportunity to make our digital world an asset rather than a liability for gender equality. Online, just as on our streets, we need to do all we can to eradicate violence against women and girls so we can all hold our heads high and move freely, without fear.

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