Campaigns by politicians to tackle gendered online harassment are sorely needed in the UK.
Some of the UK’s most prominent female politicians have united in a cross-party campaign to “Reclaim the Internet”. The project will focus on reducing misogynistic online abuse and pressurising social media to be more proactive when contacted by victims of harassment on their sites. Yvette Cooper and Jess Phillips, both Labour MPs, former Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson, and Conservative MP Maria Miller, currently Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, helped launch the campaign in May.
Yvette Cooper said, “for some people online harassment, bullying, misogyny, racism or homophobia can end up poisoning the internet and stopping them from speaking out.” Earlier this year, research published by an Australian firm revealed that 47 per cent of the women in general who were interviewed had experienced a form of abuse online. This number rises to 76 per cent for those under 30. Clearly, the issue of internet harassment is one that plagues the online activities and lives of many women; it’s about time action was taken.
Similarly, the Women’s Equality Party (WEP) has created a campaign to tackle misogynistic cyber-abuse. Officially launched on 24 May, the WEP presented their “e-Quality” campaign, aiming to unite other parties behind pushing legislation to put in place more rigid guidelines for websites to take action against online harassment. Under the hashtag #CrtlAltDelete, party leader Sophie Walker asked New Statesman readers to tweet their support of the campaign “so that women’s voices are no longer controlled, modified and deleted online.” Whilst Walker said the party was “delighted” to hear of Cooper’s campaign, they questioned the lack of some issues in the ‘Reclaim the Internet’ project.
The WEP are asking Cooper’s campaign to include specific policies on “refocusing” UK law on “revenge porn” to give more legal protection to victims. In 2015, England and Wales made revenge porn illegal, classing it as “photographs or films which show people engaged in sexual activity or depicted in a sexual way or with their genitals exposed, where what is shown would not usually be seen in public.” However, campaigners wish to see amendments, such as it being possible for victims to apply for an injunction immediately following an image being shared without their consent.
Another issue the WEP have called on the “Reclaim the Internet” campaign to put on their agenda is to make sure that legislation on internet abuse is able to acknowledge “double discrimination” experienced by BME, LGBT and disabled women in the abuse they often face online. (Interestingly, the WEP make no mention of particular abuse directed to working class women, contributing to criticisms of their nonchalance to class.) The party has also said that gender equality in the structures overseeing the implementation of online safety measures should be ensured.
Sophie Elliott, editor of the feminist magazine Parallel and photographer, wrote a blog post on her own experiences of online abusers, in which she said, “They have their own websites; their own chat rooms; their own Facebook groups. They are everywhere. And because of this, the internet has become just another medium through which men can harass, intimidate, and abuse women.”
Some might question why online harassment has been dubbed a “women’s issue”, and point to cases of men and other social groups experiencing high levels of internet abuse. In 2014, the think tank Demos released research stating that male celebrities receive more abuse on Twitter than female ones. Activist and writer Soraya Chemaly wrote about the dilemmas with comparing the online harassment men and women face, essentially arguing that the abuse of women online needs to be taken in context of women being abused and silenced offline too. In deconstructing Demos’ recent findings that women account for around 50 per cent of misogynistic tweets sent to women, Barbara Speed has highlighted that as always context is key – the algorithmic based research methods used by Demos might be flawed; searching Twitter for certain words and making assumptions about the sender’s identity is not a robust way of collecting accurate data.
Cooper, at the forefront of the “Reclaim the Internet” campaign, spoke of being inspired by campaigns to reclaim the streets from fear of gender-based assault. Forty years ago women took to the streets to challenge attitudes and demand action against harassment on the streets. She said that in 2016 “the internet is our streets and public spaces.” (Of course the fight to end sexual harassment on UK streets has not been won yet, as campaigns like Everyday Sexism show.)
Worryingly, the issue of cyber-harassment extends beyond abuse directed at politicians and celebrities, but is being seen as increasingly prevalent amongst young people. Only recently did news of a campus rape broadcast to classmates emerge in California, in addition to past cases where the sexual abuse of young women has been distributed online – often the hosting websites have only removed the content in question and done little to help bring perpetrators to justice. Even on a more typical basis, 38 per cent of girls online said they have been bullied, compared to 26 per cent of boys online, with the figure at 41 per cent for girls between the ages of 15 and 17.
This generation has grown up online, but the responsibility for protecting young people is nevertheless in the hands of our elders in the political system. The voices of young people and of young women in particular are needed in this discussion and movement now more than ever. Here’s hoping that the suggestions and aims of the cross party “Reclaim the Internet” campaign and the WEP’s “e-Quality” drive will be listened to and the two projects will cooperate. Women everywhere demand it.