Antisocial media

Widespread online harassment is a human rights violation

30th November 2017

Social media has been a powerful ally for women in the past month. The online outcry about sexual harassment shocked the world into seeing abuse towards women as distressingly commonplace. In this instance, Twitter served as an empowering space – it provided solidarity and an encouraging environment where women could break their silence. It can achieve a tremendous amount of good.

We must not forget, however, that social media is also a toxic enabler. The inequality and violence that women still face in our society is often replicated within these online communities. Charlie Brooker may have exaggerated the deadly power of Twitter in a horrifying episode of Black Mirror but the capability of social media to enable violence is a frighteningly real issue.

It is no secret that platforms such as Twitter can easily facilitate harassment and abuse towards women. Amnesty International recently commissioned an IPSOS MORI poll to investigate the online abuse towards women as a human rights violation. The results provide shocking quantitative data about an issue that we often only discuss in anecdotal terms. In one of the most important findings, the poll revealed that 43% of women surveyed believed that Twitter was failing to adequately address issues of online abuse. So are social media platforms failing in their duty to protect their female users?


The recent research develops a previous Amnesty International investigation into the harassment of active female members of parliament on Twitter ahead of the general election. Shocking results prompted the human rights organisation to evaluate social media as a damaging environment for all women. The international poll surveyed 4,000 women, aged 18-55, across eight countries – 23% of these women had experienced online abuse. In the UK alone, one in five have suffered from online abuse and harassment. Young women were the most affected with 37% having experienced abuse of this nature.  

The results emphasise that harassment is not just an issue of gender. Many women find that the abuse targets facets of their identity – ethnicity, sexuality, religion and disability are all under attack. Unprovoked hatred is a devastating consequence of the internet’s veil of anonymity – a staggering 59% of the women polled said that their online aggressor was a stranger.

Psychological impact

Being the target of online abuse can have a severe impact on your mental health and the offline consequences of abuse are often permanent. In Amnesty International’s findings, more than half of the women suffered from stress, anxiety or panic attacks induced by the abuse and a huge 68% noted that it dramatically knocked their confidence. A fifth of the women polled felt that even their future job prospects were threatened.

These online communities are shaped by real people often threatening very real violence. Caroline Criado Perez campaigns to improve women’s representation in the media and led the campaign that gave us Jane Austen’s face on the new £10 bank notes. The Bank of England’s announcement in 2013 that her campaign has been a success had horrific consequences as Criado Perez received an onslaught of violent abuse over Twitter.  

“It was terrifying and overwhelming. The threats were coming in thick and fast. They were describing in graphic detail what they would do to me – how they would mutilate me, gang rape me to death, what implements they would use to torture me,” she tells The Overtake.

“I didn’t know who they were, where they were or what they were capable of. I was afraid to answer my door. I’m still not totally over it. I don’t know what that would look like.”

East London politician Seyi Akiwowo had a similar experience of unsolicited abuse in response to an online video of her speech at the European Parliament. She explains the emotional impact of the misogynistic and racial abuse.

“I was so overwhelmed by it all. Looking back, even though I went into fighter mode, wellbeing wise – I wasn’t okay. It was obvious that the harassment affected me which is surprising because I have always been a big believer in the saying ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.’ This is so not true. Words hurt and hateful words lead to hateful action,” she says.

In 2011, Copenhagen student Emma Holten awoke to her private naked photos and personal information uploaded onto the internet for the world to see. The images were distributed across multiple websites and she received hundreds of sexually explicit threats. Holten tells The Overtake about her mental health following the distressing experience.

The biggest impact on my mental health was understanding how many people did not care about me being victimised and how many people saw my victimisation as entertainment

“My first reaction was humiliation and disbelief. In the beginning, I didn’t understand the scope – I thought it would be slightly embarrassing for a week. I didn’t conceive the fact that my friends were ever going to know or that it would have severe impacts on my work life, my social life and my daily life,” she says.

“It gave me a sense of being completely dehumanised – I was a person without rights. I had grown up thinking that I was a citizen in a society that would receive justice if a crime was committed against me.

“The biggest impact on my mental health was understanding how many people did not care about me being victimised and how many people saw my victimisation as entertainment. It felt incredibly violent to understand how many people do not care, at all, that you are suffering. Some people even find it hilarious – that has a very severe impact on how you perceive yourself as a part of this world,” she says.

No confidence

This culture of abuse needs to be seriously challenged and social media companies must understand that sexual violence is as real online as it is offline. The anonymity of the computer screen enables perpetrators to be horrifically violent, sexist and racist with no regard for the consequences. Tackling these issues requires coordinated and forceful action at the behest of social media organisations. However, the women polled by Amnesty International have little confidence in these platforms to protect their well-being. 41% of Facebook users and 43% of Twitter users thought that the attempts of the platforms to address online abuse were inadequate.

After realising that her experience with online abuse was sadly commonplace, Akiwowo founded Glitch! UK, an organisation dedicated to ending online violence against women and girls and online hate speech.

“Glitch essentially means a temporary malfunction with an equipment. We believe this glitch of online abuse can be fixed and when we look back on this period, we want to be able to say that the rise in online violence towards women and girls was only a “glitch” in our history,” she says.

Glitch! UK has developed a set of recommendations about how to appropriately address online abuse and has been lobbying social media giants to do more. In 2018, they will be training online tech companies to learn from the mistakes of current platforms.  

Holten believes that non-consensual material posted on their sites is the responsibility of the platform. New reporting features on Twitter are often an afterthought and do take time to fully function as an integrated part of the site.

“I think that it became very clear that websites are built by straight white men. The way that they are built does not account for the potential for stalking and harassment. They are built as if we are genderless robots. When you start to use them, you realise that people can easily become victims of revenge porn and horrific violence,” she says.

When the Danish police informed Emma that her attempts to report her breach of privacy would be futile, she developed the Consent project. Teaming up with friend and photographer Cecilie Bødker Jensen, Holten took a series of naked photos of herself doing everyday tasks in her apartment.

By publishing the photos professionally, the project felt like an act of re-humanization and Holten could finally regain control of her own body.

I don’t mind people seeing my breasts but I would love to decide, for myself, when that happens

“For such a long time, the only victims of revenge porn that I heard talk about their experience expressed extreme regret and shame about taking the pictures. They wanted to distance themselves from it. They had expressed a sense of self-blame and carried responsibility as a victim which I did not want to participate in. I felt that this was wrong.

“I wanted to say: I don’t mind people seeing my breasts but I would love to decide, for myself, when that happens! The Consent project wasn’t a solution to the problem but an act of activism. I politicised what had been made so personal,” she says.

A balancing act

Social media has an obligation to protect the human rights of women using their platforms. Companies must quickly move from acknowledging the issue to achieving concrete solutions. Although Twitter recently updated its guidelines to clarify its position on online abuse, the vague and corporate language still clouds the issue. Further transparency is essential. Moderators must be highly trained and the process of reporting an issue must be simplified.  

Holten does give online companies some credit, recognising that there have been massive improvements in their responses to reported abuse.

“In 2011, it was completely impossible to have something removed from a google search. We are now in a very different time – it is still not enough but victims are not meeting the same reaction that I did.

“If the tools available now were available back then, I probably would not have responded in the same way,” she says.

Twitter must make some difficult decisions if it is to continue welcoming diverse and controversial perspectives while safeguarding users more efficiently. The platform is founded upon freedom of expression and it must maintain its liberal stance on free speech. However, another impact of online abuse is the silencing effect on female participation in the online public sphere. While a small majority of the women polled by Amnesty International did not change their social media usage, a significant 24% said that they stopped posting content that expressed their opinion on certain issues. Can Twitter continue to promote unrestrained freedom of expression if women are scared to join the conversation?

The only way to get over this is to keep speaking up

By allowing online abuse to continue on this scale, we risk a generation of women who refuse to challenge the status quo in order to preserve their mental health. Criado Perez urges women subject to online abuse to try their best to keep going.

“These threats come from a place of fear. These men are scared of our voices. The only way to get over this is to keep speaking up until women speaking in the public sphere is so normal, it’s no longer seen as a threat.

“I’m afraid women of our generation just have a to suck it up for a while and get through this, so the women and girls who come after us can reap the benefits,” she says.

Social media platforms are facing an uphill battle. The hashtag #WomenBoycottTwitter that recently circulated was a wakeup call for the company and Amnesty International’s recent findings continue to apply the pressure. Twitter must quickly find a way to reconcile the platform’s commitment to free speech with the urgent need to protect women from the unsolicited hatred that it unfortunately engenders.

30th November 2017