THE BLOG

Are We Living in a Culture of Aggression and Harassment Online?

21/05/2015 10:42 BST | Updated 19/05/2016 10:59 BST

Social media is not known for its tolerance of diverse views and supportive commentary, but in the last few weeks, the social media ranting has reached a deafening volume. Against the constant backdrop of Katie Hopkins, there has been Jameliagate, calls for JK Rowling to leave the country and the storm of words around Protein World's advertising campaign.

I am a writer and advocate of esteem, an ambassador for Dove's self-esteem project and the government's Be Realbody acceptance campaign. I have always been vocal about my feelings and as body confidence has gained greater public awareness, the chatter around the topic continues daily. However, I have noticed that as the subject has gained traction, so have the abusive responses. A year ago it was more possible to voice a measured opinion fairly easily. Today if you go against someone else's view, prepare for a violent backlash.

When Juliette Burton, a fellow campaigner, and myself expressed our views that overall the Protein World ads make women feel 'unfit' for the purpose of wearing a bikini on the beach if they don't measure up to the image portrayed on the Protein World posters. In response to this opinion, we received a barrage of very personal insults. 'Ugly feminists!', 'Chubby mentally jealous women!' were two examples, typical of the type of response we received. Protein World's CEO even called the body confidence campaigners 'terrorists', except their weapons of mass destruction in this case were the post-it note's they had used to cover the offending advertisements.

I was bullied as a child and I could close the door on it when I got home. Today the web has created a violent and pernicious playground where no teacher or adjudicator is present. Anyone can publicly insult and humiliate a stranger hundreds of miles away with no recourse. In most cases this trolling and abuse is water off a ducks back to a well-balanced, mature adult, but it can be very damaging to a more vulnerable individual.

It occurred to me that this particular debate started around the negative effects of Protein World's poster campaign, yet the online discussion around it became even more esteem crushing. The haters were unleashed to hound women who stood up for themselves and frighten them into silence, by making very personal attacks. Is that what women have fought for? To be free to say what they want in real life only to be victimised online by these faceless misogynists? Would they treat their wives like that, their children, their mothers? I hope for their sake not.

We cannot feel afraid to say our truth. A few months ago in Paris, a group of men were assassinated for their contributions to a satirical magazine and we all stood together united in favour of freedom of speech. But conversely, another world is emerging online. A world where opinions are muted or blocked because others don't want to hear? It is easy to become fearful of being singled out and 'terrorised' virtually?

Being true to yourself is the essence of self-esteem, being who you are and happy with it. It also comes from being kind to others. Helping those around us activates the same part of the brain as when we do things for our own pleasure. To survive these tricky times, where the rules of everyday reality are suspended, we need to support each other. One of the more positive aspects of my own experience of being trolled is that I've acquired some tremendous new Twitter friends, ready to engage in constructive debate on the portrayal of women in popular culture and encourage good practise by organisations.

100 years ago the Suffragette movement fought a momentous battle for women's voice to be heard equally. And today we need to keep fighting for our opinions to be heard, without fear.