During a week when the world has focused on how governments and corporations can support initiatives that uplift women and girls globally at the Generation Equality Forum (GEF), more than 200 distinguished women have signed a letter urging tech companies to fight digital abuse.
Published by the World Wide Web Foundation on Thursday, the letter calls on Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and Google to promote gender equality by protecting women online.
“The scale of the problem is huge: 38% of women globally have directly experienced online abuse. This figure rises to 45% for Gen Zs and Millennials,” the letter said. “For women of color, for Black women in particular, for women from the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized groups — the abuse is often far worse. The consequences can be devastating.”
The GEF culminated in Paris this week with global activists calling for the greater prioritization of women’s rights. Focusing on topics ranging from girls’ access to education to sexual and reproductive health, the event focused on the progress of women’s rights since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. It also called attention to new challenges that women face globally, including those arising from the growth of the internet.
The disproportionate levels of digital abuse faced by women is considered an extension of gender-based violence, which is characterized by the physical, sexual, mental, or economic harm forced on a person, usually a woman or girl, because of their gender identity. Social media platforms that have grown exponentially during the digital age have led to a breeding ground for people to abuse and harass women, often without consequences.
The letter’s signatories drew attention to this fact, encouraging the CEOs of the most popular social media platforms to use the occasion of the GEF to support gender equality and the empowerment of women and help end the practice of digital abuse. The letter’s signers include Diane Abbott, UK member of parliament; Gillian Anderson, actor and activist; Sopheap Chak, executive director of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights; Emma Watson, actor and activist; and Farah Nazeer, CEO of Women’s Aid.
On the same day the letter was published, the Web Foundation also shared a pledge from Facebook, Google, TikTok, and Twitter to invest in initiatives that will tackle online gender-based violence and abuse. Some of these initiatives include proactively reducing the amount of abuse targeting women, providing more policy and product guidance when reporting abuse, and offering users the ability to track and manage reports of abuse on their platforms.
But some of the letter’s signatories say these commitments aren’t enough to prevent the practice of digital abuse and engender women’s empowerment.
“As you work toward these goals, we’ll be watching: We will recognize when you make progress and hold you to account when you don’t,” the letter said. “If you build this better internet for women, you will build a better internet for everyone. You have the way. Now show the world that you also have the will.”
Here are seven women who signed the letter urging tech companies to stop online harassment on why it is necessary to prevent online gender-based violence to empower women everywhere.
1. Michelle Bachelet
As the first female president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet has long been a champion for women’s rights. She initiated policies to encourage women’s reproductive rights and addressed issues that plague women disproportionately, including domestic violence and gender inequality. Currently, Bachelet is serving as the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights.
As part of her work during the GEF, Bachelet signed the letter urging tech companies to promote inclusive spaces for women and feminist movements to participate in safely.
I commit to actively promoting an open, safe & inclusive civic space. Together with other @UN leaders of #GenerationEquality we will take concrete steps for meaningful participation of feminist movements & women rights defenders in all their diversity online & offline. #Act4Equalpic.twitter.com/OLq3JoBU58— Michelle Bachelet (@mbachelet) July 2, 2021
2. Ashley Judd
American actress and gender equality activist Ashley Judd uses her platform to call for policies that empower women around the world. She has worked with global organizations like the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and International Center for Research on Women to raise awareness about the harms of female genital mutilation and advocate for women’s economic justice.
In 2016, Judd gave a TED talk about the threat of online gender-based violence, speaking about her personal experience with digital abuse to call on legislators and the tech community to take a stand against online harassment.
“It’s clearly traumatizing. Our mental health [and] our emotional well-being are so gravely affected because the threat of violence is experienced neurobiologically as violence,” she said. “We must, as individuals, disrupt gender violence as it is happening.”
3. Julia Gillard
Julia Gillard served as the 27th Prime Minister of Australia and has been universally recognized as a role model for young girls for her commitment to gender equality and accessible education.
As a signatory of the letter calling attention to digital gender-based violence, Gillard recounted her own experiences with online harassment.
“As prime minister of Australia, like other women in the public domain, I regularly received highly gendered and ugly social media, including the circulation of pornographic cartoons,” Gillard told the BBC.
She added that it made her "angry and frustrated that women still face this kind of abuse,” which inspired her to add her name to the letter.
4. Diane Abbott
Diane Abbott is a British politician and member of the UK Parliament. She has been outspoken about issues concerning women’s rights, including the right of women in Northern Ireland to exercise their reproductive rights. As a Black politician, Abbott has been the target of both racism and misogyny online.
“There’s always been an undercurrent of racism and misogyny,” Abbott said in an interview, according to the New York Times. “But social media has made everything so much worse. Every day you click on Twitter or Facebook, you have to steel yourself to see racist abuse — that’s a horrible feeling.”
In addition to the mental toll that online gender-based violence takes on women, Abbott underscored how harrassment discourages women from speaking up and taking active roles in public life.
“I think it puts off younger women from coming into politics, because they don’t feel they can take that level of abuse,” she said.
5. Soraya Chemaly
Soraya Chemaly is an award-winning writer and human rights activist who focuses on gender equality and social justice. Her essay collection, Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women's Anger, investigates the culture of female rage and the gendering of emotions, highlighting the potential that women’s anger has to advance gender equality.
Chemaly signed the letter advocating that tech companies do more to prevent online harassment, but called out the resulting pledge as “help yourself tweaks” that ignore the embedded misogyny of social media platforms. On Twitter, Chemaly stated that Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and Google need to make structural changes to combat online abuse.
I signed Web Foundation letter bc it raises awareness and shines a light on this problem, but the “fixes”announced by the companies are basically “help yourself” tweaks. We need deep commitments addressing structural changes, cross-platform abuse, political disinformation + more. https://t.co/xGXvHckIbm— Soraya Chemaly (@schemaly) July 1, 2021
6. Arzu Geybulla
Arzu Geybulla is a journalist from Azerbaijan, covering foreign policy and human rights for several news and media outlets. During the GEF, Geybulla took part in consultations concerning online gender-based violence and has been open about her own experience with online harassment, according to the BBC.
On Twitter, Geybulla shared that she signed the letter because she believes that it is possible for the internet to become safer for women and girls. She also added that she will be watching the progress of tech companies as they work to honor their pledge to combat digital abuse.
I signed! Safer internet for women and girls is possible. Four tech companies have pledged to tackle abuse against women on their platforms — we’ll be watching to see their progress. https://t.co/NMKZUjGuxf— Arzu Geybulla (@arzugeybulla) July 1, 2021
7. Seyi Akiwowo
Seyi Akiwowo, a women’s rights activist and CEO of Glitch, a UK-based nonprofit that seeks to end online abuse toward women and marginalized groups, signed the letter with the purpose of encouraging deep changes to the way social media platforms operate.
After the Web Foundation published the pledge from the four biggest social media platforms to make changes to support women, Akiwowo said that the companies need to do more.
“There is no mention of content moderation, the training and holistic support needed for human content moderators, and the role and limitations of AI in content moderation,” she told the New York Times, adding that the diversity of staff at these companies had been overlooked. All four CEOs from these companies are men.
Akiwowo also retweeted a thread from Glitch’s Twitter profile laying out why the pledge is not as comprehensive as it should be and how tech companies can respond.
A thread: Whilst we welcome a high-profile discussion around ending online gender-based violence, and whilst we welcome parts of the announcements made today, we also believe there is far more that tech companies *can* and *must* do #EndOnlineAbuse#GenerationEqualityhttps://t.co/yTseNABgtQ— Glitch (@GlitchUK_) July 1, 2021