The last few weeks have been a scary, yet powerful, moment for women. The Weinstein revelations awoke an online outcry from thousands of women who together felt strong enough to say #MeToo, and demonstrate to the world how outrageously common it is for women to experience violence and discrimination.
The sheer levels of sexual harassment exposed was horrifying. Yet there was something uplifting about this exposure: a silence was broken, solidarity was strengthened, and a burst of energy was given to the fight against misogyny, sexism and women’s rights.
But #MeToo also made me feel uneasy, because women have been speaking out for a long time and haven’t been listened to. #MeToo seemed like a breakthrough moment, but it will only break through if action is taken and the momentum is sustained.
New Amnesty research has revealed just how dangerous a space social media can be for women. Our online poll of women aged 18-55 in the UK showed that one in five have experienced some form of abuse or harassment on social media. This is even higher amongst young women, who are particularly active on these channels. A third of 18 to 24-year-olds told us they’ve suffered abuse or harassment online.
Online abuse is manifesting itself in disturbing ways. Of the women who’ve experienced this abuse or harassment, more than a quarter said they’d experienced threats of physical or sexual assault, and almost half had sexist or misogynistic abuse directed at them. Again, of those who’d received abuse, more than half said it had caused them stress, anxiety or panic attacks, and more than a third felt their physical safety had been threatened.
This has made a huge impact on women’s lives. It’s no wonder they feel vulnerable and unsafe. Laura Bates - founder of the Everyday Sexism Project - has said:
“When people were talking about how they would track me down using the IP address of the Everyday Sexism Project, my partner and I actually moved out of our flat for a short time. I also received a number of [threatening] messages about snipers and found it difficult to walk around the city with tall buildings without looking over my shoulder.”
Social media can be an extremely powerful tool for women. It gave space for #MeToo to exist, while Facebook, Twitter and other online platforms have given women a space to mobilise and strengthen their voice in public and political debates; this is why we need to protect it from becoming a toxic place for women.
Tackling online abuse requires decisive and coordinated action from social media companies, government and the police. Yet most of the women we spoke to in the UK have very little confidence in these systems, with 62% saying that the response of social media companies was inadequate.
The authorities and social media organisations need to wake up to the fact that abuse and harassment of women is as real online as it is offline, and can’t simply be turned off. They must work together to ensure that women can use social media platforms equally and without fear, including by investing in training about gender-based online abuse for the moderators and the police, and ensuring robust and transparent ways of reporting the violations are in place.
There also needs to be a greater understanding that online abuse plays out in complex ways. Women of colour, ethnic minority women, LGBTI women, women with disabilities and non-binary individuals all experience abuse differently and personally. These experiences need to be recognised and responded to adequately.
The energy of #MeToo was wonderful to see. We cannot afford to let it dwindle.
Next year will mark 100 years of women’s suffrage. A century on, our battles are different, but they are still real.
At Amnesty, we’ll be standing with women against the emerging violation of women’s rights online. As the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women approaches on Saturday (25 November), and the 16 days of action that follow, we need to make sure that online abuse against women is part of the conversation.