More than a quarter of UK women experiencing online abuse and harassment receive threats of physical or sexual assault - new research

One in five women experienced online abuse or harassment - women reported psychological distress as a result 

“Social media can be a toxic and dangerous place for women” - Kate Allen

***Spokespeople including Laura Bates and London councillor Seyi Akiwowo available***

Warning: quotes in this press release contain offensive language

Women in the UK are facing shocking levels of online abuse, including threats of physical and sexual assault, making them fear for their safety and causing them psychological distress, Amnesty International can reveal in research published today.

A new Amnesty online poll asked 504 women aged 18-55 in the UK about their experiences of online abuse to investigate this emerging violation of women’s human rights. The findings are published ahead of the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (25 November) and the following 16 Days of Activism (25 November-10 December). 

One in five of the women Amnesty polled said they’d experienced abuse or harassment through social media. Young women aged between 18 to 24 are particularly affected, with more than one in three (37%) saying they’d experienced online abuse. The poll reveals the disturbing nature of this abuse. Of the women who said they’d experienced some form of online harassment or abuse: 

  • more than a quarter (27%) had received direct or indirect threats of physical or sexual violence;
  • almost half (47%) had experienced sexist or misogynistic abuse;
  • and 59% said the perpetrator was a stranger, compared with 27% who personally knew the offender.

The findings also show the impact this form of abuse is having on women’s physical safety and psychological well-being. Of the women polled who have experienced online abuse or harassment: 

  • one-third (36%) felt their physical safety had been threatened;
  • more than half (55%) suffered stress, anxiety or panic attacks; 
  • three out of five (61%) had trouble sleeping well;
  • two-thirds (67%) felt apprehensive when thinking about using social media; 
  • and one in five (20%) felt the online abuse threatened their job prospects.

Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK’s Director, said:

“Amnesty’s research shows that social media can be a toxic and dangerous place for women, often used to threaten women’s physical safety and causing them psychological distress. 

“What we’re seeing in social media is a space where violations of women’s human rights continue to emerge, where perpetrators can be violent, sexist, racist and homophobic whilst hidden behind the comfort of a screen. 

“It’s horrifying that so many women have received online threats of sexual assault and don’t know where to turn for help. 

“Violence and abuse of women is as real online as it is offline. Policy-makers and social media companies need to wake up to this and ensure that women can feel safe to communicate online.”  

The poll follows an Amnesty investigation into abuse or harassment on Twitter against women MPs in the UK ahead of the general election in June, and is part of wider Amnesty research into online violence and abuse against women.

An ‘invisible issue’ causing psychological distress 

Amnesty’s poll shows the extent to which online abuse threatens women’s safety and can severely damage their mental health. More than two-thirds (68%) of women who have experienced online abuse said it resulted in lower self-esteem and a loss in self-confidence, and 66% said it made them feel a sense of powerlessness. One in five said they felt worried for the physical safety of their family, and 36% felt their own physical safety was threatened.  

Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, with whom Amnesty has been working to further understand how the abuse manifests itself, shared her own experiences of threats she’d received online: 

“[Online abuse] began for me when I started the Everyday Sexism Project - before it had become particularly high-profile or received many entries. Even at that stage, it was attracting around 200 abusive messages a day. 

“It was clear that [the Project] had been posted as a target on an online forum, where people were competing for who could say the worst thing and drive me off the internet first. The messages included detailed, graphic, and explicit descriptions of rape and domestic violence. [In some cases], they would pose as me [online] and post very explicit, sexual stories.

“The abuse then diversified into other forums, such as Facebook or Twitter messages. These often spike if I’ve been in the media or interviewed about something.

“I found it difficult not to be scared about my safety initially. 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.” 

Laura Bates said: 

“We’re seeing young women and teenage girls experiencing online harassment as a normal part of their existence online. Girls who dare to express opinions about politics or current events often experience a very swift, misogynistic backlash. This might be rape threats or comments telling them to get back in the kitchen. It’s an invisible issue right now, but it might be having a major impact on the future political participation of those girls and young women. We won’t necessarily see the outcome of that before it’s too late. 

“It’s really important that we’re campaigning for sex and relationship education to be made compulsory in schools, specifically for it to include information on issues like online pornography, social media and sexting. The complete lack of sex and relationship information around issues like consent, respect and gender stereotyping really feeds into this online problem.”

Intersectional identities 

Amnesty stressed that online abuse against women is not just an experience of gender. Women of colour, religious or ethnic minority women, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LBTI) women, women with disabilities, or non-binary individuals who don’t conform to traditional gender norms of male and female, will often experience online abuse that targets these different identities. In Amnesty’s poll, 14% of women who had experienced online abuse had received racist messages and 7% said transphobic or homophobic comments had been directed at them. 

Seyi Akiwowo, a London Councilor and Founder of Glitch!UK faced a wave of online harassment after a video of her speaking on the Refugee Crisis at the European Parliament went viral earlier this year, told Amnesty:

“I was caught up in a storm of abusive comments and mob-style harassment on two social media platform. I was called several variations of the N word, N*gger, Negros, N*ggeress.  They told me to: ‘fuck off back to Africa and die there you useless parasite’ and… ‘Lol kill yourself’ They also asked me: ‘Which STD will end your miserable life?’ and ‘what a giant gas chamber! When will it be commissioned?’ They hoped for: ‘the next Ebola outbreak’, that I ‘get lynched you stupid nog’ and that ‘if all whites agreed that the best course of action would be to exterminate blacks, we could do it in a week’. Throughout this experience I learned a new word - ‘misogynoir’. It is racialised misogyny that many black women face. This word perfectly captured my horrible experience.”

Women continue using social media platforms despite the abuse

Amnesty’s research found that 59% of women in the UK who experienced some form of online abuse or harassment did not change the way they used social media as a result, and 12% even increased their use of social media. However, 24% of women said they’d stopped posting content that expressed their opinion on certain issues due to online abuse they had experienced. 

Kate Allen said: 

“Social media can be an extremely empowering tool for people to express themselves, join discussions, and enjoy their right to be an active and participating member of society. Targeted intimidation of women online should not force them to change how they use social media. This type of abuse must be recognised as real and extremely harmful, and much more needs to be done to ensure that women can equally express themselves on social media platforms and live free from abuse, both online and offline.”

Women feel let down by response of UK government and social media companies

Tackling and protecting women against online violence and abuse requires decisive and coordinated action from social media companies, government and the police. Yet the results of Amnesty’s poll reveal that women in the UK have very little confidence in these systems. Of those asked, 41% of Facebook users and 43% of Twitter users thought those platforms’ attempts to address the problem was inadequate. 

Kate Allen said:

“The UK government, social media companies and the police have not yet taken decisive action to protect women and to adequately respond to online violence and abuse. They must work together to address this increasingly worrying issue, including by challenging harmful gender stereotypes, investing in training about gender and other identity-based online abuse and ensuring robust and transparent ways of reporting the problem are in place.”

Ipsos MORI

The poll was commissioned by Amnesty International and carried out by Ipsos MORI in June 2017 using an online quota survey of 500 women aged 18-55 and representational of the populations in 8 countries (UK, USA, New Zealand, Spain, Italy, Poland, Sweden and Demark) via the Ipsos Online Panel system.

The survey sample in each country was designed to be nationally representative of women in that country. The margin of error for the total sample in each country varies between 3% and 4%. In each country, fieldwork quotas were set on the age, region and working status of the women surveyed according to known population proportions in each country.
 

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