Editor's note: This article includes examples of some of the abusive tweets and comments directed at women online.
Let’s talk for a second about Diane Abbott — Britain’s shadow home secretary.
Forget where you stand on her politics and absorb this one vital fact: in the UK’s 2017 general election, almost half of all abusive tweets sent to female members of parliament (MPs) were sent to her.
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Abbott is continually targeted online with sexism and racism, and it's indicative of a wider shameful reality: women and girls all over the world are facing unprecedented levels of gendered harassment on the internet.
Now, there’s a new report from the Violence Against Women and Girls Helpdesk, funded by UK aid from Britain’s Department for International Development (DfID), that emphasises the sheer scale of the problem by examining evidence from a variety of global sources.
What it finds reveals some shocking truths about the landscape of online abuse: from rape and death threats to cyberstalking; from trolling to revenge porn.
Here’s a few things you should know — including, by way of warning, some examples of the misogynist abuse powerful women are forced to face every single day.
1. Senior female politicians are three times more likely to be insulted on Twitter because of their gender than men
Diane Abbott isn’t the only example here: Labour MP Stella Creasy, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, and former US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton are all referenced in the report.
Essentially, if you stand for something and you’re a woman, you’re more likely to be tweeted abuse, according to social leadership enterprise Atalanta. Women also experience more insults and offensive comments than men overall, often double.
This is the problem @TwitterUK has to crack - kid in bedroom has just set up an account to tweet a flurry of random abuse at me. Suspect will be gone by time they look - and then they start up doing this with another account. Fills up timeline and hard to block! #noshittakingmppic.twitter.com/UX0HkxVOuS— stellacreasy (@stellacreasy) June 24, 2018
2. Women are less likely to run for office after seeing female leaders experience negativity in the media
While Julia Gillard was Australia’s prime minister from 2010 to 2013, she was subjected to pornographic cartoons, a refusal by some male journalists to address her by her title, and degrading comments on how she dressed. Since then, research has suggested that women who observed the gendered attacks at the time were put off running for office themselves.
For young women between 18 and 21, the study revealed that 60% were less likely to run; while for women over 31, the number rises to 80%. Gillard has been quite candid in addressing the abuse she faced in public: she revealed that when she was in power, she received violent threats on a daily basis.
“Threats of violence have become more prevalent for women in public life,” Gillard said in a 2016 speech commemorating murdered MP Jo Cox in London. “Once upon a time, to criticise a public figure, you generally had to put your name to that criticism. They can take the form of detailed death threats, or threats of violence against family, friends and staff.”
"And of course, as a woman in public life, the violent threats take on another sickening dimension,” she added. “Threats of violent abuse, of rape, are far too common. A woman in public view may expect to receive them almost daily."
3. 82% of female MPs experienced psychological violence during their parliamentary term
A survey by the Inter-Parliamentary Union in 2016 spoke to 55 female MPs from 37 countries, and found that the vast majority faced threats of murder, rape, kidnap, and physical violence — primarily through social media.
I think a lot of the abuse Nicola Sturgeon gets in Scotland is from men who are intimidated by powerful, intelligent women. I say more power to her.— Douglas Henshall (@djhenshall) February 6, 2019
4. Up to 70% of cyberstalking victims worldwide are estimated to be women
In April, 22-year-old Roger Alvarado used a ladder to climb through Taylor Swift’s window in New York. The US pop star wasn’t home, and police found Alvarado asleep in her bed after he had used her shower. On Tuesday, he was sentenced to six months in jail.
The UK’s Lily Allen and Australia’s Kylie Minogue are among other female musicians who have had terrifying experiences with stalkers in recent years. And, according to writer Danielle Citron’s book “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace”, cyberstalking can often spill over into acts of violence into the real world.
A stalker sent Taylor Swift’s father messages that read, “Without her, I walk the earth alone forever and she'll continue to experience failed relationships that break her heart,’ and ’God is going to kill all the Swifts and then the issue will go away." pic.twitter.com/iw7pDscX6L— ig:@teabhcelebs 🥂 (@teabhcelebs) February 6, 2019
5. 22% of female MPs reported having been subjected to sexual violence
Sometimes, the abuse goes offline. Globally, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that one in three women have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime, often at the hands of a partner. And for almost a quarter of female MPs, it’s something they experience at least once during their parliamentary term.
6. Although most Guardian opinion writers are men, it’s women who receive the most abuse
Between 2006 and 2016, there were 70 million comments left on articles on the Guardian website. An investigation by the news platform into the content of those comments found that 1.4 million were “blocked” because of some form of abuse — and articles by women received more blocked comments than men across pretty much every section.
While white men have the majority of opinion writing roles, the Guardian found that of the top 10 regular writers who received the most abuse, eight were women. Female authors writing about sport, technology, feminism, or rape got more abuse than any other.
The men who tweet this at my articles should really know that this is the stuff that sustains me 🙏🏽🙏🏽🙏🏽 pic.twitter.com/2ZsuStttZu— Emilia (@emiliabona) October 24, 2016
7. 23% of women across the EU have reported experiencing online abuse in their lifetime
It’s not just famous writers or powerful leaders — sexism online is ubiquitous, and has reportedly affected almost a quarter of women across the European Union.
Take, for example, Gina Martin: the young activist who spent her free time outside a full time job fighting to make upskirting — the act of taking a photo up a skirt without a woman’s consent — a criminal offence. After her bill passed through parliament, her story made the news. It wasn’t long until she was sent vitriolic abuse, including one anonymous user calling her a “sluty feminist” (sic) among other highly-offensive things.
UPDATE: @instagram are deleting my sharing of the rape threats directed at me. Lets see how long it takes Twitter to censor me.— Gina Martin (@ginamartin_uk) January 17, 2019