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Alarming impact of online abuse against women


Amnesty International reveals alarming impact of online abuse against women

New research by Amnesty International has revealed the alarming impact that abuse and harassment on social media are having on women, with women around the world reporting stress, anxiety, or panic attacks as a result of these harmful online experiences.

In New Zealand, around 1/3 of women surveyed said they had experienced online abuse and harassment. Of those women who experienced abuse, 75% said they had not been able to sleep well, 49% feared for their physical safety and 32% feared for the physical safety of their families as a result.

The organisation commissioned an Ipsos MORI poll which looked at the experiences of women between the ages of 18 and 55 in Denmark, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, Spain, Sweden, the UK and USA.

Nearly a quarter (23%) of the women surveyed across these eight countries said they had experienced online abuse or harassment more than once, ranging from 16% in Italy to 33% in the US. Alarmingly, 41% of women who had experienced online abuse or harassment said that on at least one occasion, these online experiences made them feel that their physical safety was threatened.

“The internet can be a frightening and toxic place for women. It’s no secret that misogyny and abuse are thriving on social media platforms, but this poll shows just how damaging the consequences of online abuse are for the women who are targeted,” said Meg de Ronde, Campaign Director for Amnesty International New Zealand.

“This is not something that goes away when you log off. Imagine getting death threats or rape threats when you open an app, or living in fear of sexual and private photos being shared online without your consent. The particular danger of online abuse is how fast it can proliferate – one abusive tweet can become a barrage of targeted hate in a matter of minutes. Social media companies need to truly start taking this problem seriously,” said de Ronde.

Stress, anxiety, panic attacks

Amnesty International polled women describing themselves as moderate to active internet users about their experiences of online abuse and harassment.

Across all countries, just under half (46%) of women responding to the survey who had experienced online abuse or harassment said it was misogynistic or sexist in nature. Between one-fifth (19% in Italy) and one-quarter of women who had experienced abuse or harassment said it had included threats of physical or sexual assault, and 58% of survey participants across all countries who had experienced abuse or harassment said it had included racism, sexism, homophobia or transphobia.

26% of women who’d experienced abuse or harassment across all countries surveyed said personal or identifying details of them had been shared online (also known as “doxxing”). Over half (59%) of women who’d experienced abuse or harassment online said it came from complete strangers.

The psychological impact of online abuse can be devastating.
• Across all countries 61% of those who said they’d experienced online abuse or harassment said they’d experienced lower self-esteem or loss of self-confidence as a result.
• More than half (55%) said they had experienced stress, anxiety or panic attacks after experiencing online abuse or harassment.
• 63% said they had not been able to sleep well as a result of online abuse or harassment. Three-quarters (75%) in New Zealand reported this effect.
• Well over half (56%) said online abuse or harassment had meant that they had been unable to concentrate for long periods of time.
A silencing effect

Social media platforms, especially for women and marginalised groups, are a critical space for individuals to exercise the right to freedom of expression. Online violence and abuse are a direct threat to this freedom of expression.

Over three quarters (76%) of women who said that they had experienced abuse or harassment on a social media platform made changes to the way they use the platforms. This included restricting what they post about: 32% of women said they’d stopped posting content that expressed their opinion on certain issues.

“Social media has helped enhance freedom of expression, including access to information in many ways. But as offline discrimination and violence against women have migrated into the digital world, many women are stepping back from public conversations, or self-censoring out of fear for their privacy or safety,” said de Ronde.

Around a quarter (24%) of women surveyed who said that they had experienced abuse said that it had made them fear for their family’s safety.

Social media companies not doing enough

All types of violence and abuse online require responses from governments, companies, or both, depending on their type and severity.

In all countries polled, significantly more women said government policies to respond to abuse were inadequate versus adequate, with five times as many women in Sweden stating the policies were inadequate (57%). Around 1/3 of women in the UK (33%), USA and New Zealand (32%), stated the police response to abuse online was inadequate.

The survey also indicates that women feel social media companies need to do more. Just 18% of women polled across all countries said that the responses of social media companies were very, fairly or completely adequate.

“Social media companies have a responsibility to respect human rights, including the right to freedom of expression. They need to ensure that women using their platforms are able to do so freely and without fear,” said de Ronde.

Amnesty International notes that the right to freedom of expression protects expression which may be offensive, deeply disturbing, and sexist. However, freedom of expression does not include advocacy of hatred or violence. What’s more, the right to freedom of expression must be enjoyed equally by everyone, and includes the right for women to express themselves and live free from violence and abuse, both online and offline.

Social media platforms explicitly state that they do not tolerate targeted abuse on the basis of a person’s gender or other forms of identity, and they now need to enforce their own community standards. They should also enable and empower users to utilise individual security and privacy measures such as blocking, muting and content filtering. This will allow women, and users in general, to curate a less toxic and harmful online experience. Social media companies must also ensure that moderators are trained in identifying gender and other identity-related threats and abuse on their platforms.

Amnesty International is calling on governments to ensure that adequate laws, policies, practices and training are in place to prevent and end online violence and abuse against women. However, it is critical that no undue restrictions or penalties are placed on the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression. Tackling online violence and abuse must not be used as an excuse to reduce the enjoyment of freedom of expression.


The research was carried out by Ipsos MORI, using an online quota survey of 500 women aged 18-55 in each country, via the Ipsos Online Panel system. 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.

Data were weighted using a RIM weighting method, to the same targets to correct for potential biases in the sample. 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%.

Overall, 4,000 women were surveyed across 8 countries, 911 of whom said that they had experienced online abuse or harassment and 688 of whom said that they had experienced this on a social media site.

CountryTotal number of women 18-55 surveyedTotal number of women who say they have experienced online abuse or harassmentTotal number who say they have experienced online abuse or harassment on a social media platform
New Zealandn=500n=142n=116

To arrange an interview with Meg de Ronde, Campaigns Director for Amnesty International New Zealand, please contact Jason Garman on 021 202 5096 or Jason.garman@amnesty.org.nz

New Zealand statistics
1. Around 1/3 of New Zealand women surveyed said they experienced online abuse and harassment
Of the 1/3 of the women who said they have experienced online abuse:
o 75% had trouble sleeping well
o 49% felt their personal safety was at risk
o 32% felt the personal safety of their families was at risk
o 72% were less able to focus on everyday tasks
o 37% said the perpetrators were people they knew personally
o 53% said the perpetrators were complete strangers
o 70% had lower self-esteem or loss of self confidence
o 2/3 felt a sense of powerlessness
o 49% said they used social media less, or stopped altogether

New Zealand case studies
Lizzie Marvelly – Writer, editor, musician, founder of media site Villanesse
“I do find that people will seek me out. They might not necessarily follow me but they will seek me out to abuse me.”

What becomes clear from Lizzie Marvelly’s experience of online abuse in New Zealand is the huge amount of time and energy that the people posting this abuse are taking from her. Marvelly’s work as a writer, editor and musician requires her to be active on social media. She has followings of close to 10,000 on Facebook and just under 8,000 on Twitter. She has also founded her own media site Villanesse and writes a regular column for The New Zealand Herald. But in order for her to sustain this profile, she’s had to deal with regular abuse. It ranges from the low-level belittling of her as a “stupid girl” all the way to comments with very graphic sexual and violent content. As part of keeping a record she screenshots examples and files them in folders – there is even a folder reserved for the abuse she receives targeting her father.

Marvelly estimates around 90% of the harassment she receives is from people that identify as male online and she recognises a group of around 100 recurring names. She muses about online harassment as a “pack sport”, saying, “it actually doesn’t matter if I participate or not, they’re just using me to bond.”

Due to her music career, she’s been in the public eye since her late teens but says she noticed a pronounced increase in abuse over the last two years when she started publicly sharing her opinions. There are particular topics that Marvelly says are likely to get abuse, for instance when she writes about Māori and trans-rights. But she also recounts real examples of simply asking for traffic directions, discussing her day or posting about shoes that have resulted in online attacks. “You think you’ve posted something that’s quite relaxed and fun and then all of a sudden it’s not relaxed and fun anymore.”

She also notes there is an intersectional aspect to the abuse she receives, as it’s not just gendered but also around her identity as Māori. The harassment can take the form of either insulting her as a “stupid Māori b****” or accusing her of betraying her “white side”. This intersection of her identities heightens the level of abuse she can receive and the offensiveness of the insults.

At one point last year Marvelly even attracted the attention of Milo Yiannopoulos, a conservative British political commentator associated with the far-right. She said posting about Brexit resulted in Yiannopoulos retweeting her comment and his followers from around the world inundating her with responses. “There were some pretty vile threats in there – we’re going to come and rape you and that sort of stuff.” Yiannopoulos was permanently banned from Twitter in July 2016 following a large amount of racist abuse that he generated targeting American actor Leslie Jones.

Marvelly has tried multiple mechanisms to deal with the harassment online. As well as keeping records of most of the abuse she also regularly blocks or bans people if they’re abusive. She has tried to engage with these commenters, appealing to their reason and humanity, or using humour to defuse the situation. She’s used both the Twitter and Facebook reporting functions, along with reporting content to Netsafe (a New Zealand not-for-profit that works on online safety). All of these actions by Marvelly take time though and so far none of the mechanisms have resolved the problem. “It’s like whack-a-mole…there have been a few individuals like this where I’ll block them on Facebook and they’ll turn up on Twitter. I’ll block them on Twitter and they’ll find their way to Instagram and then finally they’ll find their way to YouTube. It’s like they chase you around the internet…It’s super creepy.”

While Marvelly laughs off some of the absurdity of the situation and the types of people who spend their energy harassing her online it’s clear it has a huge toll on her as well. “I think the thing that really sticks in my mind is that it is ridiculous that I’ve had to develop all of these coping mechanisms and all of these tactics and become something of an expert in this subject. I didn’t ask for this. When I think about how much knowledge I’ve acquired in dealing with trolls it makes me sad.”
“I absolutely without a doubt believe that female public figures – especially women in positions of visibility who dare to share an opinion – are treated far more harshly than men in those same roles.”

Laura O’Connell Rapira – Director of Campaigns at ActionStation, which has built a community of over 140,000 members to participate in campaigns that drive a fairer, more just and sustainable Aotearoa New Zealand.

“I used to have a policy that I wouldn’t delete anyone and I would try to engage with them. About a year ago I got rid of that policy for my own self-care and protection because it was just becoming too much.”

Laura O’Connell Rapira spends a lot of her time engaging with people online. She’s a digital campaigner by trade working as a Campaign Director for ActionStation in New Zealand. She regularly engages online on Twitter and Facebook while also communicating with an email list of close to 200,000.

When asked about abuse she’s received online she muses, “It’s so interesting because you start to decide that it’s normal behaviour. But imagine if someone came into your house and spoke to you the way some people speak to you online. You would absolutely not put up with it.”

O’Connell Rapira isn’t only a woman online, she’s a young, Māori, gay women online. And she definitely reckons this magnifies the abuse she gets. O’Connell Rapira references comments she’s had online like “look at this stupid ugly b****” and “when will these dumb Māori learn” and it’s clear that these are just some of many she’s had. She sees the most abuse directed her way when she talks publicly online about Māori issues and poverty. “The other major thing that I find usually generates hate is anything about women’s rights.”

O’Connell Rapira says that pretty much all the abuse she has faced online has been from people who would identify as male. It can range from lower level comments that she suspects the men think are positive like “you’re not just a pretty face, you’ve got a brain as well,” through to someone telling her to kill herself.

In O’Connell Rapira’s work there was actually a period of time when Action Station stopped using Māori words in emails because just the act of starting an email with “Kia Ora” would guarantee they got abuse. The request that she “kill herself” came from a man who presents online with white supremacy imagery and who apparently reacted to an email that had Māori content. Despite the abuse, they’ve gone back to using Māori language at ActionStation as she acknowledged it felt inauthentic to be changing who they are just because of a few awful people.

O’Connell Rapira has tried various tactics for handling the harassment and abuse. She has started blocking people on her Facebook page who constantly harangue her. She has also reported the abuse to Facebook and Twitter, although was clear that she found it pointless as the reply was always, “This doesn’t contravene our community standards.” More recently she has taken screen-shots and posted the abuse in an attempt to take the power back. O’Connell Rapira thinks there is some solidarity that comes from responding with public shaming of abuse, but it can also be re-triggering. “All it takes is for one person to post a nasty comment again underneath…and then your act of trying to own this awfulness can knock you back again.”

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