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Girls & Women

Study Reveals the Alarming Scale of Online Abuse and Harassment of Women

Anyone who has been the target of abuse online will know that it doesn’t go away when you log off or switch off your phone. 

Now, a new report by Amnesty International is calling attention to the damage that social media trolls are really doing, and the alarming scale of online harassment around the world.

Almost a quarter of women have experienced abuse or harassment online, reveals the report — and it’s having a serious psychological impact. 

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Women reported stress, anxiety, trouble sleeping and focussing for long periods of time, and even panic attacks as a result of the abuse they had suffered on social media.

Just last month, the hashtag #WomenBoycottTwitter went viral in a backlash against what critics called Twitter’s inadequate response to abuse on the platform. 

It came after US actress Rose McGowan was temporarily banned from Twitter after an online dispute with Ben Affleck over the Harvey Weinstein allegations, in which McGowan tweeted a private phone number.

In protest, women shared stories of often horrific online abuse, much of which clearly violated Twitter’s community standards, and that, in contrast, hadn’t been removed. 

The woman who launched the campaign, Kelly Ellis, pointed out that while McGowan’s account was suspended, the rape threats that she had received were permitted to stay live. 

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The campaign appeared to be a wake-up call for Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey, who, in response, promised some “critical” changes to Twitter’s anti-harassment tools and policies. 

But the campaign went further, sparking global debate about what social media platforms can and should be doing to respond to abuse and harassment. 

Amnesty commissioned an Ipsos MORI poll which surveyed a total of 4,000 women between the ages of 18 and 55, across eight countries —  Denmark, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, Spain, Sweden, the UK, and the US.

Some 23% of these women had experienced online abuse or harassment at least once — ranging from 16% in Italy to 33% in the US. Of those, just under half (46%) said it was misogynistic or sexist in nature.

Across the countries, between one-fifth and a quarter of women said it had included threats of physical or sexual assault, 58% said it had included racism, sexism, homophobia, or transphobia, and 26% said personal or identifying details of them had been shared online. 

For more than half (59%) of the women, the abuse was coming from complete strangers. 

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"The internet can be a frightening and toxic place for women. It’s no secret that misogyny and abuse are thriving on social media platforms, but this poll shows just how damaging the consequences of online abuse are for the women who are targeted,” said Azmina Dhrodia, Amnesty’s researcher on technology and human rights. 

“This is not something that goes away when you log off,” she continued. “Imagine getting death threats or rape threats when you open an app, or living in fear of sexual and private photos being shared online without your consent.” 

In some ways, online harassment can be more damaging than harassment in person, as it can escalate with alarming speed.

“The particular danger of online abuse is how fast it can proliferate — one abusive tweet can become a barrage of targeted hate in a matter of minutes,” continued Dhrodia. “Social media companies need to truly start taking this problem seriously.” 

And the impact of the abuse goes significantly beyond the world online. 

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Of the women who had experienced online abuse, 41% said it made them feel their physical safety was threatened,55% said they had experienced panic attacks, anxiety, or stress, while over half (56%) said the abuse meant they had been unable to concentrate for long periods of time. 

Nearly a quarter (24%) of the women said they felt the safety of their family was at risk.

Amnesty also spoke to women with public profiles online. One of these, US blogger and activist Pamela Merritt, described how she had received an email from the FBI, saying they needed to talk to her about some activity relating to her blog. 

“There was a white supremacist who was actively trying to find out where I live,” she told Amnesty. “That took it to another level… I had to be very deliberate about my posting for a year after that.”

She said: “[The abuse] definitely makes me pause before I weigh in on anything. It makes me fear for my family. I have had to have an intense conversation with my family about safety and me having a public profile and being out in the community.” 

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Another of the women interviewed was Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, which has collected more than 80,000 women’s experiences of daily gender inequality.

Even before her project became high-profile, Bates told Amnesty she was receiving around 200 abusive messages a day — including “detailed, graphic, and explicit descriptions of rape and domestic violence.” 

“The psychological impact of reading through someone’s really graphic thoughts about raping and murdering you is not necessary acknowledged,” she said. “You could be sitting at home in your living room, outside of working hours, and suddenly someone is able to send you an incredibly graphic rape threat right into the palm of your hand.” 

It’s a problem because, for many women and marginalised people, online social platforms provide a voice, and a right to freedom of expression. 

But the abuse and harassment is silencing many. 32% of the women said they had stopped posting content that expressed their opinion on certain issues. 

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“Social media has helped enhance freedom of expression, including access to information in many ways,” added Dhrodia. “But as offline discrimination and violence against women have migrated into the digital world, many women are stepping back from public conversations, or self-censoring out of fear for their privacy or safety.” 

But, across all countries polled, significantly more women thought the government’s response to abuse was inadequate than adequate. 

Some 57% of women in Sweden thought government responses were inadequate, compared to 11% who thought they were adequate; 33% of women in the UK felt the same; and 32% in the US and New Zealand. 

But social media sites also have to take more significant action, according to Amnesty, with just 18% of women across all countries saying the responses of social media companies were very, fairly, or completely adequate. 

“Social media companies have a responsibility to respect human rights, including the right to freedom of expression. They need to ensure that women using their platforms are able to do so freely and without fear,” said Dhrodia. 

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Amnesty notes that “the right to freedom of expression protects expression which may be offensive, deeply disturbing, and sexist. However, freedom of expression does not include advocacy of hatred or violence.”

It adds: “What’s more, the right to freedom of expression must be enjoyed equally by everyone, and includes the right for women to express themselves and live free from violence and abuse, both online and offline.” 

Amnesty is calling on social media platforms and governments to take steps to ensure that everyone can use these sites without fear of abuse or harassment. 

It says that platforms should “enable and empower users to utilise individual security and privacy measures such as blocking, muting, and content filtering.” 

Sites must also ensure that moderators are trained in identifying gender and other identity-related threats and abuse on their platforms, it adds.

Meanwhile, it says, governments should make sure that adequate laws, policies, practices, and training are in place to end online violence and abuse. 

Global Citizen campaigns to end gender violence around the world, including by putting an end to gender discriminatory laws through our #LevelTheLaw campaign. You can join us by taking action here