Back in 2019, two years before she was awarded won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021, Filipino journalist and CEO of news site Rappler.com, Maria Ressa, shared how because of her in-depth reporting covering then Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs,” she became the recipient of intense online harassment.
“I’ve been called every single animal you can think of… sexual attacks, rape, murder, behead. At one point I was getting 90 hate messages per hour,” said Ressa to the program 60 Minutes. “This is far worse than any war zone that I’ve been in. In a war zone you know exactly where the threats are coming from.”
Compared to the normal internet user, Ressa’s case is extreme. Most, if not all, of the online harassment she’s received were spurred by her journalistic work. However, that doesn’t negate the fact that harassment against women online has become an alarming occurrence.
Many women around the world have received the same vitriol from online harassers for doing a lot less than reporting on war crimes. And although both men and women can experience incidents of online violence and abuse, women are considerably more likely to be victims of repeated and severe forms of harmful actions online or with the help of technology.
Online harassers are likely to target women
The anonymity that the internet brings has emboldened trolls to target women with abusive messages and threats without fear of consequences. And this same cloak of anonymity makes it difficult to identify and penalize those who harass and abuse women online. So the threats and abuses continue.
According to research from the Pew Research Center, roughly two-thirds of adults under 30 years old have been harassed online. These acts include offensive name-calling, purposeful embarrassment, stalking, physical threats, harassment over a sustained period of time, and sexual harassment.
Academic research and civil rights groups Amnesty International have long confirmed that women are often the target of online harassment. In Pew’s study, they discovered that women are more likely than men to report having been sexually harassed online (16% vs. 5%). This could mean several things: women are more affected by online harassment, the harassment they receive is more severe than that of men, or men take online harassment lightly and thus don’t report it as much. Either way, the statistic is still disconcerting.
Even worse is that young women are more likely to have experienced sexual harassment online. Looking at men and women under the age of 35, 33% of women said they have been sexually harassed online. Meanwhile, 11% of men said the same.
But what are tech companies doing to address these grave statistics? Apparently, not much — but it doesn’t mean they can’t.
For Jessica Valenti writing for The Guardian, if tech companies really wanted to end online harassment, “they could do it tomorrow.” In 2014, when her article was written, she said that Silicon Valley needs to step up their guards against online harassment or risk losing users. Not much has changed since. Or depending on who you ask, it’s become worse.
For writer and activist, Jaclyn Friedman, “They [Silicon Valley] don’t lack the talent, resources or vision to solve this problem — they lack the motivation.” And that motivation, more often than not, is money.
Tech companies have failure to protect users — especially women
Existing efforts to address this issue such as censoring individual accounts and promoting verification, says Lilia Giugni, don’t really address the core causes of online violence. “The actual design of these platforms and the business models these companies employ play a more central role.” Giugni is an academic at the Universities of Bristol and Cambridge, and is also the CEO and founder of GenPol, Gender & Policy Insights, a UK-based feminist think tank. She also recently published the book, “Threat — Why Digital Capitalism Is Sexist (And How To Resist)”
The goal of social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok is to keep users scrolling, watching, reading, and liking. Because once these companies have our attention, then they can sell it to advertisers. Algorithms play an important role here as they are designed to feed us with content that’s meant to make us stay even longer.
“This means we keep seeing content similar to whatever attracted our clicks in the first place,” says Giugni. “But research shows this also facilitates the circulation of ‘divisive’ messages. It also supports the spread of online sexism, and pushes users that view problematic materials into a ‘black hole’ of related updates.”
She also mentions how it wasn’t just users in tech who have been receiving problematic treatment, but the women working within the companies, as well. Their treatment of their own women employees should also be examined through a “gender lens,” especially with the spate of mass layoffs that have been in the news in the last few months.
Of particular concern are social media moderators whose job is to monitor user-generated content for violations of community standards, such as hate speech, abuse, and harassment. Because of their role, they’re often exposed to distressing media that could lead to mental health issues, including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress syndrome. And their issues deserve the same attention as users who are harassed online.
In search of accountability and policy reforms
Of course, online abuse and workers’ treatment concerns people of all genders. “Women, however,” says Giugni, “pay a unique price for social media violence.” Something needs to change in how these social media platform are built, run, and managed.
And one of the changes Giugni sees is making these platforms more accountable. One way is through legislation. The UK Online Safety Bill, for example, is a proposed law aimed at reducing online harm, including illegal content and harmful behavior.
If passed, the bill would require social media platforms and other online services to take steps to protect users from harmful content and establish a new regulatory framework to enforce these requirements. The bill is currently being debated in the UK parliament and could be subject to changes before it becomes law. “It is important, though, that policy change in this area specifically identifies women as a protected category, which this bill currently fails to do,” says Giugni.
In the United States, meanwhile, there is Section 230. Part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, it’s a law that provides immunity to online platforms from being held legally responsible for the content posted by their users. This means that online platforms such as social media websites are not held responsible for what their users post on their platforms, as long as the content is not illegal.
The law has come under scrutiny in recent years due to concerns about online harassment, hate speech, and other harmful content. Some argue that the law allows online platforms to avoid taking responsibility for harmful content on their platforms, while others argue that it protects free speech online.
In February this year, the US Supreme Court began hearing arguments in a noteworthy case that could limit use of Section 230 by tech companies.
According to Julia Angwin writing for the New York Times, “Big tech companies argue that any limitations to the broad immunity they enjoy could break the internet and crush free speech, while advocates for reform argue that broad immunity incentivizes tech companies to underinvest in harm reduction.” But the key, she says, is to create a distinction between speech and conduct.
In 2021, the free expression advocacy group PEN America called on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other internet companies to implement “product design changes” to address online abuse. Some of their recommendations included a dashboard that filters abusive content, an “SOS” button for harassed users, transparent and escalating repercussions for harassers, and more. But now, three years later, no changes have been implemented.
To protect workers, meanwhile, Giugni underscores the importance of organising via trade unions, and to ensure employers respect their duty of care towards the workforce.
What happens in the next few weeks or months with the UK Online Safety Bill and Section 230 will shape not only how these companies view and address online harassment, but also their entire business model. And when that occurs, then they’ll be forced to listen and make some changes.
Standing up to online harassers and the companies that host them
In 2022, a year after receiving her Nobel Peace Prize award, Maria Ressa published her book “How to Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future.” In it, she touches on how authoritarianism around the world has been aided and abetted by social media companies.
These companies, according to Ressa, have allowed their platforms to be used to spread lies, propagate unfounded fears, anger, and hate. And she challenges readers to stand up against these abusive companies.
Democracy is too fragile for people to do nothing, the book concludes. But so are the people who form them, so are the women.
Written by Peter Imbong.
Lilia Giugni’s book, “Threat: Everything You Should Know about Technology, Capitalism and Patriarchy” is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, other online bookstores and local bookstores near you.