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“Women shouldn’t be expected to pay this cost just to participate.”: What we learned from our online gender-based violence consultations

Web Foundation · October 6, 2021

Online gender-based violence and abuse threatens to hamper the web’s potential to be a platform that amplifies gender equality and spearheads positive change, and instead cause it to remain one more medium in which women, and particularly women from marginalised communities, are attacked and have their voices suppressed. In response to this urgent issue, we held a series of consultations around online gender-based violence and abuse throughout 2020 and 2021. Here’s what we learned from over 120 participants from 85 organisations and 35 countries. 

1. When facing pile-ons — a coordinated wave of online abuse that can include sexist comments and image-based abuse — women can be forced to self-censor online due to fear of speaking out.

Pile-ons are often instigated by a single event that leads to a wave of attacks. Several participants pointed out that, right now, the existing settings on many platforms are not granular enough to stop pile-ons of abuse of activists, meaning women must instead rely on ineffective reporting systems or self-censor to manage or prevent the abuse. 

2. Too often, content moderation fails to consider the needs and experiences of women from marginalised communities and different regions around the world.

Participants feel that tech companies tend to focus their resources and efforts around content moderation in the US and Europe, leaving serious gaps in investment and enforcement of community guidelines in other regions.

3. Cross-platform abuse — abuse that occurs across multiple online platforms — can be especially challenging to deal with. 

Different platforms not only have different policies around the type of content they allow, they also have different systems for reporting abuse. So even if someone is successful in reporting abuse on one platform, abusive content targeting them can still reappear or remain on another platform. Participants also shared how difficult it can be to manage and keep track of all these reports across different platforms.

4. For women in public life, there are direct and serious economic impacts to not being online.

For many women in public life, ‘logging off’ for an extended period of time is simply not an option because online platforms are often closely tied to their ability to generate an income. For journalists, it is a way to connect with sources, track breaking news, and share their articles, and for politicians, being online gives them a platform to share their views with wider audiences, connect with constituents and build support.

5. Online abuse against women public figures has a generational impact. 

Given so many women in public life often serve as role models for younger generations, the torrent of abuse they experience can serve as a major blocker for young women and girls to enter these professions.

6. There can be a difference in how platforms and young women actually describe abusive behaviours.

The categories offered by the platforms do not always match the way young women would categorize or describe what has happened to them. Many participants noted how this is an even bigger challenge for young women who may speak local languages that are not translated in the platform’s guidelines. In these cases, this group will have to find ways to translate and decipher the policies themselves. These differences in describing abuse risks leading to some young people thinking abusive behaviours are just part and parcel of being online.

7. Navigating safety tools on platforms can be particularly challenging for young women.

Participants noted that understanding safety and security tools on offer can be especially detrimental for young women who may speak local languages if these tools only exist in certain languages. One researcher shared how in a recent study they conducted, less than half of young women ensured that their privacy settings were high.

To learn more about these takeaways, read our consultation digest and visit our project microsite.

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