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Anxious, angry and vulnerable: The impact of online abuse on women during lockdown

Almost half of women have experienced online abuse since lockdown, and a third of these say the abuse is worse that it was before Covid
Almost half of women have experienced online abuse since lockdown, and a third of these say the abuse is worse that it was before Covid Credit: Johner Images 

Over the past six months, as our bedrooms and kitchens have become offices, we’ve also seen a range of secondary consequences in our lives. From a huge transformation in the way we work to a range of new mental health problems and sadly, increased levels of domestic violence.

A little more below the radar is what I believe is now an epidemic of online abuse.

As we move even more of our lives on to the internet, it seems the harassment sometimes found in public spaces is being dragged online, too.

By June, I had heard enough from women who were finding themselves working and socialising more than ever online, and encountering abuse on every kind of platform. Glitch, a charity tackling online abuse which I founded after experiencing horrendous online abuse myself, launched a nationwide survey to investigate the gendered impact of Covid-19 on online spaces. 

The results, published this week and based on nearly 500 responses, found that almost half (46 per cent) have experienced online abuse since lockdown, and a third of these say the abuse is worse that it was before Covid. Among our survey respondents, black women, non binary people and minorities experienced even higher levels of abuse, were more likely to modify their behaviours as a result, and were more likely to feel like their complaints had not been addressed.

A huge proportion of the abuse (84 per cent) seemed to come from strangers, and Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are major platforms where it takes place.

Women reported to us: “Nothing ever changes. I report lots of violent images and sexist abuse. It feels like the moderators are sexist, too, as they allow it…”, “I felt afraid and vulnerable”; “It does make me anxious and angry”.

We see celebrities called out for perpetrating online abuse, such as Wiley's Anti-semitic remarks in July. But for many ordinary women - 92 per cent of whom have reported using the internet more during the pandemic and experiencing harmful behaviours online, their struggles have been widely ignored; by Government, by social media companies, and by their employers. 

The question I would pose to the tech company CEOs and Government ministers is this: given that our lives have changed forever, and we all need to be free and equal in online spaces, are we going to accept this? Are you as platform owners and lawmakers happy with women and people of colour commonly encountering abusive behaviour and feeling that they have to modify their behaviour in order to live and work online?

One respondent told us she feels like women are “guests in a male space”. This is not inevitable, it is not acceptable and there are concrete actions that can be taken.

First, any notion that online spaces are a free for all and if you don’t like it you should just log off, has to end now. In our survey, over a third of respondents reported a professional, social and financial impact of this abuse, and it’s clear that equality and livelihoods are at stake.

The Government needs to stop deferring to the tech companies and set out a properly ambitious online harms strategy, based on a comprehensive public health approach. Government should set an example for employers – who are failing on health and safety when they take no action to protect those working online at home, and urgently undertake research into gender-based and intersectional abuse.

Next, the leading tech companies, who have profited enormously from our changed habits during the pandemic, must actually play a part in disrupting and ending the ability to abuse. At the time of writing, the leading social media platforms are still refusing to share data on the complaints they receive and what content they do and do not remove, and the tools for self moderation are not what they should be.

They need to step up on identifying repeat offenders and on ensuring that banned accounts do not resurface. The power of tech companies seems to be growing, while their accountability, and willingness to help those who need it, seems to be diminishing. 

With remote working now a permanent fixture, and the possibility of a second virus peak not a million miles away, it’s more important than ever before for those with power to really commit to making online spaces free and equal for all.