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'I wasn't prepared for this': Experts say online abuse against women increased during pandemic

The movement online led to the emergence of new tools being used to target women.

Image: Alamy

HARASSMENT AND ABUSE experienced by women on the internet has intensified during the pandemic, experts have said, as more of their work, education and social lives migrated online.

“One of the biggest things coming through is how much it has become a chilling factor or deterrent to going forward in positions [of employment, politics etc], and that’s very much the case for young women,” Orla O’Connor, director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) told The Journal.

“It’s almost being cited straight away by young women as a reason they’re not going forward for a leadership position.”

Recent research pointed to higher levels of abuse towards local female politicians in Ireland in 2020 and 2021 compared to their male counterparts and there is evidence globally that the issue has escalated in other areas such as the workplace. 

A UK survey in January last year revealed that workplace sexual harassment had moved increasingly online during the pandemic. Nearly one in two women who had experienced sexual harassment at work reported some to all of it was online.

This compares to just 5% of workplace sexual harassment victims in a UK government survey in 2019 who said the harassment had taken place online or through work-related messaging. The workplace (20%) was the most common setting for this kind of harassment pre-Covid, following by socialising with colleagues (13%) or visiting a client or customer (9%). 

23% of women who experienced sexual harassment reported an increase or escalation while working from home since the start of first lockdown in 2020, last year’s survey found.

Women in politics

Recent research carried out by Dr Ian Richardson, a data scientists and tally expert, found that female councillors in Ireland received eight times as many abusive tweets per follower than their male colleagues.

He looked at the volume of toxic replies and quote tweets the online content by councillors received between September 2020 and September 2021. Nine of the ten tweets with the highest number of toxic replies were from the accounts of female councillors. 

Fine Gael councillor Clodagh Higgins topped the list with a tweet that received 543 toxic replies. Former Lord Mayor of Dublin Hazel Chu appears on the top-ten list four times, while Social Democrats councillor Eliza O’Donovan features twice – she received 27 toxic replies to this tweet:

Richardson found that the situation changed when it came to national politicians: among the tweets he analysed over a 12-month period, there was near parity on the relative level of abuse received by both male and female TDs.

However, female senators received three times as many abusive tweets per follower compared to male senators. While men from government parties were significantly more likely to receive abusive tweets than men from other parties, there was no significant difference between the level of abuse women received across political parties. 

Speaking to The Journal, Richardson said the findings highlight a barrier to women entering politics.

“The abuse doesn’t happen in isolation of the actual account user. Because it can be publicly seen on the platform, you could make the argument that women see this happening and then don’t want to be involved in politics – it’s a pull away from using the platform,” he said.

He pointed out that Twitter and other social media platforms are tools for communicating with voters.

“Local government is the traditional path to the Dáil and if they’re pulling back from using these platforms, it could hamper their ability to get elected to the Dáil.”

It was on Facebook, rather than Twitter, that independent councillor for Dún Laoghaire- Rathdown Deirdre Donnelly had an experience that significantly impacted on both her work and home life. 

“It was back in 2019. Late one night I got a message from a person through Facebook messenger saying ‘MILF’,” she told The Journal.

“It started like that and went on asking personal questions and things like that – really inappropriate questions. I just ignored it.”

“The next day in my capacity as councillor I was at an event and there were crowds of people at it,” Donnelly said.

I put a photo of the event up on my Facebook page and right afterwards he started again. It seemed to be whenever I put something on Facebook it would start and then I wasn’t sure was he there at some of the events. 

“It went on. He asked if I wanted to see some porn, he sent something pornographic, asking ‘do you like that?’ and I ignored it all, but it got worse and worse, it was extremely explicit.”

Donnelly said she blocked the person sending her the messages, but she was concerned that his behaviour could escalate because she was ignoring him.

She said she began to fear for her safety, not just at public events but in her own home. 

Donnelly pointed out that independent candidates have their home addresses on their posters and she wondered whether this person was local and knew where she lived. 

Was he going to turn up at the house? My husband travels to the UK a good bit for work so I’d ask him to get a taxi to the airport and leave the car in the driveway because I didn’t want it to be obvious he wasn’t there. I’d get panicky if the doorbell went at night and I wasn’t expecting someone. I’d put the chain on the door and we upgraded the lighting around the house. It was quite worrying.

These messages began a year after Donnelly reported an incident at a hotel in which she says a man at a social event sexually harassed her, before following her up to her room.

Donnelly spoke publicly about the incident on RTÉ’s Liveline last year, telling the show that the man “kept rubbing himself up against me” in a bar until she shouted at him to leave her alone. Soon afterwards she decided to go to her hotel room, she said, and the man followed her. 

She said when she got out of the lift she ran down the corridor to get away from him. 

Donnelly reported the incident to gardaí and said she was told 22 months later that the man would not be prosecuted. 

“After I spoke to Liveline I got some really horrible stuff from people who clearly didn’t understand the background at all,” she said. “One person commented on the way I spoke, saying it was such poor delivery full of ‘ems’ that a prosecutor would never believe me anyway.”

She said her experience of reporting this incident discouraged her from reporting the online harassment in 2019 to gardaí. 

“I just didn’t have a huge amount of trust in the justice system,” she said.

Donnelly said knowing she would face this type of online abuse would have discouraged her from entering into political life.

“I wasn’t prepared for any of this, to be honest,” she said. “I can live with criticism over my views on certain things or the way I vote, but I didn’t think I’d be subjected to this kind of thing at all.”

Self-censoring

Abuse and harassment online has a significant impact on victims, but there is also a more subtle and constant negativity women describe encountering online.

An Ipsos MORI poll commissioned by Amnesty International in 2018 found 23% of women across eight countries said they had experienced online abuse or harassment. Almost 60% of those who experienced abuse or harassment online had received it from complete strangers. 

Amnesty’s report pointed out that Twitter can be a powerful tool for women to make connections and express themselves, but for many it is a platform where “violence and abuse against them flourishes, often with little accountability”. 

“The violence and abuse many women experience on Twitter has a detrimental effect on their right to express themselves equally, freely and without fear, the report stated.

Instead of strengthening women’s voices, the violence and abuse many women experience on the platform leads women to self-censor what they post, limit their interactions, and even drives women off Twitter completely.

More than three quarters (76%) of women across the eight countries who had experienced abuse or harassment on social media said they had made some changes to the way they use social media platforms as a result.

Kate*, a writer who spoke to The Journal, recently decided to significantly reduce her presence on Twitter. 

She said this decision was not made due to a recent threatening or abusive experience on the platform, but because of a build-up of constant more subtle negativity and criticism she faced when she shared her views on seemingly trivial topics like television shows. 

“I’ve used Twitter for maybe ten or 11 years and I’ve never really had any strategy with it, if I have a thought I just go with it,” she said.

I’ve made friends on Twitter and got to know people that way and there was a group of people I wanted to talk to, but it seems like – maybe it’s down to the algorithm – that it’s opened up a lot more in recent years. Now your tweets seem to be seen more by people who don’t even follow you and wouldn’t normally have seen them.

Though Kate said many of the responses she received are not necessarily gendered, there are some particular topics that attracted negative attention predominantly from male users of the site.

“Once I tweeted about a panel show a lot of men like, joking that it seemed it had taken a few seasons for them to realise they could have more than one woman on. I got a lot of replies from men giving out to me for tweeting about it and saying ‘it’s like this because…’.

That felt very much like ‘hey don’t ever talk about this man thing’ and I’ve seen that with comments about films, TV and music as well. I can tweet about beauty products – and I’ve done that a lot – and nobody would ever say anything about about me or accuse me of saying something stupid.

“I also tweeted about something bad that happened to me last year and I was shook after it so I shared it,” she said.

There were men in the replies telling me I should have stopped and told the man not to do that – it was advice I wasn’t asking for. Someone recently advised me to get my neighbours to look out for me because I said I didn’t feel safe walking when it was dark in the new area I moved to so that was more unasked-for advice. I’m a grown woman, I know how to live in the world. 

Kate said she is disappointed that she does not feel as comfortable using the platform anymore, as she has made friends there over the years, but now it is “nice not worrying about opening the app and seeing 20 notifications, wondering what’s waiting for me.”

‘An extra space where women face violence’

Speaking to The Journal, Kathryn Travers, UN specialist in ending violence against women said the move of social lives, work and schooling online has changed our relationship with the internet.

“With that has come a bigger spotlight on the problems that are associated, including online sexual harassment and other forms of violence against women and girls,” she said.

In the immediate weeks and months following the start of the pandemic, there were huge increases in rates of reported violence against women generally. So I think that it’s happening online [too], it’s just an extra space where women are facing increased rates of violence and that’s for a number of reasons, like lockdown measures that keep women locked in with their abusers, for example.

She said it may be the case that people are “taking out their frustrations” with the personal impacts of the pandemic on strangers they encounter online. 

“And of course now it’s much more prolonged. We’re in this state of heightened anxiety and uncertainty and with that comes heightened levels of violence. I once heard someone say that women’s rights are kind of like the canary in the mine, it’s the first thing to be hit.”

Travers said the sudden surge in reliance on the internet and, for many people, internet usage, also led to new forms of online harassment. 

“During the pandemic, what we really saw was an innovation like Zoom bombings [intrusion into a video-call] for example – that wasn’t really a thing before the pandemic.

As we innovate with technologies and our new ways of being online, we’re finding a correlation with an innovation of different ways of being violent online towards women. Often we think about technologies being able to be a solution for so many things and I think a lot of people have that reflex, but without thinking critically also about how to put safeguards in place to make sure that people can be safe online.

Data compiled by The Economist’s Intelligence Unit estimated that internet usage amongst women globally had increased by 50-70% during the Covid-19 pandemic, noting that this was increasing their exposure to threats.  

There is no comparative research available to determine increased levels of this activity in Ireland, but pre-Covid data was already showing high levels of reported online harassment.

In a survey published in 2020 by NGO Plan International, 67% of girls and young women polled in Ireland said they had experienced online harassment. This compared to the 58% at a global level who reported these experiences online.

In Ireland, the average age this abuse started was between 13 and 14, but the global report found harassment was starting for girls from as young as eight-years-old.

Most girls in Ireland listed the following abusive experiences as happening frequently or very frequently:

  • Stalking
  • Body shaming
  • Purposeful embarrassment
  • Generally abusive and insulting language
  • Anti- LGBTQ comments
  • Racist comments
  • Sexual harassment
  • Threats of physical and sexual violence

Orla O’Connor, director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI), said online harassment and abuse has been one of the most prominent issues coming through in discussions with members during the pandemic.

She said it has become a “chilling factor” for women who are considering pursing leadership positions in community, business and political spheres. 

“For politicians it is now becoming such a big part of their decision-making process, what they’ll have to deal with and bring on themselves and their families,” she told The Journal.

She said particular topics during the pandemic seemed to trigger more significant levels of online abuse, such as discussions about vaccination and maternity restrictions.

Conversations online about women working in the sex trade also draw this kind of negative behaviour, she said, and some women are “nervous about engaging in a conversation because of concerns about a backlash”. 

O’Connor herself receives online abuse when she speaks on certain issues, she said. 

“At the moment, in particular there is a lot of strong stuff on trans issues – the Women’s Council and myself are trans-inclusive and there is a lot of anti-trans sentiment online,” she said.

But there is always a level of this when it comes to feminism and women’s equality. In some ways I have sort of got used to it – we do a lot in the council around protection of staff, but it is harmful. It’s not okay that we got used to it.

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Reporting abuse and legislation 

Almost one third of the women in the Amnesty International poll who use Facebook stated that the company’s response to dealing with abuse or harassment online was inadequate.

Facebook did not respond to a query from The Journal about its monitoring and management of gendered harassment and abuse.

Almost 30% of women polled who are Twitter users stated the company’s response to abuse or harassment was inadequate. In response to a query from The Journal, a Twitter spokesperson said that while the company is continuing to expand on and invest in approaches to tackling abuse on the service “we recognise that there’s more to be done”.

“Right now, 65% of the abusive content we action is surfaced proactively for human review, instead of relying on reports from people using Twitter,” they said.

Abuse and harassment disproportionately affect women and underrepresented communities online, and has no place on our service. It hurts those who are targeted and is detrimental to the health of the conversation and the role Twitter plays in the expression and exchange of ideas where people — no matter their views or perspectives — can be heard. We continue to examine our own policy approaches and ways we can enforce our rules at speed and scale.

Twitter will run a health education campaign in Ireland in the coming weeks to raise awareness on tools to report potentially harmful content. The company is also exploring new ways for users to filter out unwanted speech in their replies, stopping specific words, targeted name-calling or emojis.

Action from social media companies to tackle this kind of behaviour is welcomed by advocates, but they say this will have little impact without major societal changes driven by government policies. 

On average, half of all women polled by Amnesty stated the current laws to deal with online abuse or harassment were inadequate.

The European Parliament recently voted for new rules to tackle illegal online content, to ensure platforms are held accountable for their algorithms and better content moderation practices. 

The parliament said the draft law – the Digital Services Act (DSA) – aims to create a safer digital space for users. 

“Including provisions on risk assessments, risk mitigation measures, independent audits and so-called “recommender systems” (algorithms that determine what users see) in the DSA would also help to tackle harmful content (which might not be illegal) and the spread of disinformation,” the parliament said.

The parliament also in December voted to adopt a legislative initiative report on tackling gender-based violence online and urged the Commission to specifically criminalise gender-based cyberviolence.

A list of actions that the legislation should address included:

  • cyber harassment
  • cyber stalking; violations of privacy
  • recording and sharing images of sexual assault
  • remote control or surveillance
  • threats and calls to violence
  • sexist hate speech
  • induction to self-harm
  • unlawful access to messages or social media accounts
  • breach of the prohibitions of communication imposed by courts
  • human trafficking

The Irish government recently published the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill, which will, legislation that will establish a new regulator to enforce rule and ensure accountability in the sector.

A new Media Commission will include an Online Safety Commissioner who will be tasked with minimising the availability of defined categories of harmful online content.

The commission will enforce not just this legislation but also additional forthcoming laws, including the rolling package of regulation coming from Europe over the next decade. 

An expert group is also due to assess recommendations from an Oireachtas committee for an individual State complaints mechanism for harmful online content. 

In response to a query from The Journal, the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media said online safety codes set out by the new commission will ensure that designated online services take appropriate measures to reduce the availability of illegal content on their service.

“Such illegal content includes, for example, relevant offences under Coco’s Law, or the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act 2020. It also includes illegal threatening online content or content which is deemed to be harassment under the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act, 1997,” the department said.

“Outside of illegal content, and among others, online safety codes may also include measures that a regulated online service must take to reduce the availability of online content by which a person bullies or humiliates another person. Importantly, this category of content will be subject to a risk test set out in the legislation.”

 This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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