Charlie discusses the issue of women being trolled online, including the type of attacks utilised and what women can do if they are being trolled.
I was challenged by my wife Kim yesterday evening to write the bulletin about women and online trolling. A couple of nights ago, we listened to the BBC Newscast podcast ‘Female Journalists Talk About Their Online Trolls’ and were both shocked by the abuse female journalists receive. I thought I would share some of my research on the level of abuse received and then talk about what those being abused can do about it. I managed to find two useful reports, one from the Economist Intelligence Unit, ‘Measuring the Prevalence of Online Violence Against Women’, and the second by Amnesty Global Insights, ‘Unsocial Media: Tracking Twitter Abuse Against Women MPs’. I used these reports for some of the facts and figures and to understand some of the issues.
Some Facts and Figures
- 38% of women reported personal experiences with online violence and 85% of women reported they were personally aware of online violence against other women (including from outside their networks). 
- Only 1 in 4 reported the behaviour and only 14% reported to an official protective agency. 
- 9 in 10 women reported that online violence is harmful to their wellbeing and 62% of the survey respondents said women are experiencing a sense of helplessness as little is done to combat the issue. 
- 74% of women surveyed expressed concern about online abuse escalating to offline threats. 
- In 2019, 18 female MPs in the UK refused to seek re-election with many citing abuse, both online and offline, as one of the leading causes for their decision. 
- The more identities you have, the more abuse you face. In the case of online abuse, women of colour, religious or ethnic minority women, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and women with disabilities will often experience abuse that targets these different identities. 
- In research about the 2017 General Election and trolling, it was found that Diane Abbott received almost half (45.14%) of all abusive tweets and black and Asian female MPs in Westminster received 35% more abusive tweets than white female MPs. The party the women belonged to didn’t make any difference.
What are the types of attacks?
There are nine main threat tactics, often used in combination :
- Misinformation and definition – spreading rumours to discredit a woman’s character.
- Cyber–harassment – repeated behaviours using textual or graphic content to frighten and undermine self-esteem.
- Hate speech – sexist or hateful language designed to attack or humiliate.
- Impersonation – creating a false online presence in someone else’s name.
- Astroturfing – a coordinated effort to concurrently share damaging content across platforms.
- Violent threats – threats of physical harm through online channels.
- Doxing – posting personal real-world information, such as addresses, to perpetuate violence.
- Video and image-based abuse – sharing private images or videos with malicious intent.
- Hacking and stalking – intercepting communications and data, targets women across social media accounts and through location tracking.
If you look through the news, you can see examples of these acts happening to high-profile and ‘ordinary’ women every day. The ones we see in the news are the ones that have a big enough impact to be newsworthy, we don’t hear about the huge amount of abuse which is relentless and goes on all the time.
Looking around the internet, there are no end of references of women who have been harassed online, whether it’s for their views, their looks, being outspoken, carrying out a role which is seen as a ‘mans’ role, such as a referee or a football pundit, or strongly expressing a view.
One of the cases I remember from a while ago was that of Caroline Criado Perez, a feminist, author, and journalist who argued in 2013 that as Elizabeth Fry was being replaced by Winston Churchill on a £5 note that there would be no women, apart from the Queen, on British banknotes. She started a campaign which ultimately led to Jane Austen appearing on the new £10 note. For being vocal and leading the campaign, she received a huge amount of abuse on social media, including threats. In the Guardian she was quoted as saying, “The immediate impact was that I couldn’t eat or sleep, I lost half a stone in two days. I was just on an emotional edge all the time. I cried a lot. I screamed a lot. I don’t know if I had a kind of breakdown. I was unable to function, unable to have normal interactions.” By standing up and promoting women’s equality, she was subject to a huge online misogynistic campaign.
What can women (and men) do if they are being trolled?
I read an excellent article on Wired, ‘A Woman’s Guide to the Most Toxic Trolls on the Internet’, in which the author, Nina Jankowicz, talks about the different types of trolls and how to deal with them. There was also a publication, ‘Don’t Feed the Trolls – A Practical Guide to Dealing With Hate on Social Media’ and the Troll Busters website giving advice on the subject.
The main advice is that:
- As soon as you receive abuse on social media, block the sender.
- Never engage or argue with the troll.
- Turn off social media alerts.
- Never post on social media you have been trolled or that you have been upset by trolling.
- Where violence is threatened, keep hold of the evidence and report the issue to the police and the social media company involved.
Until I had listened to the podcast and done some research on the subject, I wasn’t aware of the sheer scale of what is going on. It is almost like, as a society, we are so aware of trolling that it is no longer interesting to report about it and so we don’t often hear about the corrosive effect on the receiver. The newscast article said that many women thinking about a career in politics, journalism, or other high-profile roles, knowing the abuse they are going to get, wonder if it is worth it. Those already in such positions have considered quitting. I think the first thing is to recognise this as an issue, bring it to people’s attention and then talk about it. Once it is raised as an issue, we can do something about it. There are lots of ideas and suggested ways to deal with the issue, including technical, legal, and social, and some are easier to implement than others, but first we have to recognise it as a serious issue.