Women Online, Are They Welcome?

By Suvi Helko


A female friend of mine in Finland called out a local parliamentary election candidate in a comment section of a public conversation on Facebook about refugees. She pointed out that a comment he wrote was racist, and politely asked him to delete it. As a reply to that, she received an angry private message from him: he wished that she would be beaten and raped by asylum seekers, declaring she would “get what she ordered”.

If this interaction occurred today, a screenshot of the conversation shared on her feed containing the threat would probably go viral, cause a scandal and bring consequences for her adversary. However,  because the incident happened in September 2015, before the #MeToo  movement, the post was soon forgotten after it was shared by me and a few other friends.

A few weeks ago, I was listening to a presentation at SAP in New York titled “Women in Power and Sexism Online” by Faye Raincock, head of communications for Havas UK. I was shocked (although, sadly on the other hand - not so shocked) to hear how common hate speech and sexual harassment online towards influential women actually is. Over a six month period, Raincock and her team conducted a study examining tweets received by 150 powerful women, including global leaders, entertainers, broadcasters, politicians and athletes. From the 50 million tweets received, over six and half million tweets were categorized as abusive. This means on average 200 abusive tweets per day were sent to each woman.

These messages were sorted in four categories: gender-specific slurs, intellect and ability, and sexual harassment and violence. Sexual harassment constituted the majority of the adverse tweets among global leaders, entertainers, broadcasters and athletes, while politicians received hateful tweets mostly about their intellect & ability, as well as threats of violence.

Sometimes people try to justify the harassment and blame the victims. Raincock shared that she often hears comments like, “Taylor Swift is shaking her ass to the camera in bikinis, she’s begging for it”. Her usual response to people claiming that women ‘had it coming’ is: “When was the last time you saw Emma Watson or Hillary Clinton shaking their ass in bikini?”.

The numbers were not the only poignant aspect of Raincock’s presentation; what surprised me the most is that half of these abusive tweets are coming from women as much as they are from men. As a matter of fact, the study showed that there is actually a slightly higher number of women sending gender-specific slurs to women in power. How can this be? What makes a woman send a demeaning message to another woman they don't know personally? Is it the result of the society we live in, in which anyone can openly question, comment, criticize and judge women?

Raincock and her team are not alone in their research results on the commonness of online harassment towards women. According to Amnesty International research, nearly a quarter of women have experienced harassment online, and in almost half of these cases the abuse or harassment was sexist or misogynistic in nature. A research by digital security firm, “Norton” in Australia, reveals that nearly half of all women experience abuse or harassment online, and 76% of those are under the age of 30. According to yet another study, 70% of women find online harassment a “major problem,” as reported by the Pew Research Center survey on online harassment in the US.

The aforementioned examples are only a handful of the many reports out there. So what can be done about the problem? Laws that make online harassment punishable are a potential step towards creating a more respectful internet. For example, in the United States 28 states and D.C. have criminalized revenge porn. Online companies can also do their part by improving their policies and tools against online harassment, hate speech and illegal content. For example, Facebook allows users to report hate speech to a team of hundreds of employees monitoring the complaints 24/7. Additionally, schools can discuss the norms of respect in online behavior. The New York Times encourages teachers to talk about the issues of sexual harassment with their pupils with the help of a resource package. However, let’s not forget that it is also up to us. Let’s always keep in mind our role in being respectful and civilized in our own communication, both offline and online. Finally, let’s not hesitate to support women who call out their abusers online.