Words will never hurt me, so the old saying goes. But a new poll from Amnesty International reveals exactly how damaging the effect of online abuse against women can be. Online threats of a sexual or violent nature are all too common, triggering anxiety, stress and a culture of silence.
Women around the world suffer panic attacks and trouble sleeping due to online harassment, according to a hard-hitting new report from Amnesty International.
The human rights organisation paints a grim picture of the psychological fallout from violent, racist and sexually abusive threats made against women on social media and other platforms in eight different countries.
Its IPSOS-MORI poll documents the experiences of 4,000 women aged between 18 and 55 in Denmark, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, Spain, Sweden, the UK and the USA.
The women’s stories are worryingly familiar, and show just how damaging the psychological effects of online abuse can be.
Nearly a quarter (23%) of the women surveyed said that they had experienced online abuse at least once, and that figure grew to 33% in the US.
Of those who had been harassed, 41% reported that the incident made them feel that their physical safety was threatened. More than half (55%) said they had experienced stress, anxiety or panic attacks after experiencing the abuse, and 63% said they had not been able to sleep well as a result. A further 56% described being unable to concentrate for long periods of time.
The type of online abuse faced by the women featured in Amnesty’s survey ranged from misogynistic comments to threats of physical and sexual assault. Racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia were also problems, and 26% of women who’d experienced abuse said identifying details of them had been shared online (an activity known as “doxxing”). Over half of the women questioned about online abuse said it had came from complete strangers.
Amnesty’s researcher Azmina Dhrodia says the poll results should be a wake-up call for social media companies, who “need to truly start taking this problem seriously”.
“The internet can be a frightening and toxic place for women,” she says. “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.”
She tells Amnesty that even before her project became high-profile, she was receiving around 200 abusive messages a day, including “detailed, graphic, and explicit descriptions of rape and domestic violence”.
“The psychological impact of reading through someone’s really graphic thoughts about raping and murdering you is not necessarily acknowledged,” she says. “You could be sitting at home in your living room, outside of working hours, and suddenly someone is able to send you an incredibly graphic rape threat right into the palm of your hand.”
Another damaging effect of online harassment is the way in which it changes its victims behaviour, causing many people to police what they allow themselves to say.
Over three quarters (76%) of women who told Amnesty that they had experienced abuse on a social media platform changed their behaviour there as a result. This included restricting what they post about: 32% of women said they’d stopped posting content that expressed their opinion on certain issues.
“Many women are stepping back from public conversations, or self-censoring out of fear for their privacy or safety,” says Dhrodia.
A significant amount of women questioned by Amnesty felt that their governments’ responses to online abuse were inadequate; 33% of UK women believed that the police could do more to tackle it. Social media organisations also have an important role to play, as Amnesty suggests.
“Social media companies have a responsibility to respect human rights, including the right to freedom of expression,” says Dhrodia. “They need to ensure that women using their platforms are able to do so freely and without fear.”