Woman of the Week is Stylist’s weekly celebration of women who are making a difference to society. This week, we meet former London councillor Seyi Akiwowo who launched an advocacy group called Glitch, which aims to tackle the online abuse of women, after finding herself a target for trolls.
In February 2017, Seyi Akiwowo was flying high.
Three years into her term as a councillor for Forest Gate North – she stood at the age of 21 and was elected at 22, the youngest member of the council in history – she had worked on campaigns around youth safety, community growth and public art. A few months previously she had travelled to Strasbourg for the 2016 European Youth Event at the EU Parliament.
While there, she delivered a rousing address calling on former empires including Britain, France and Italy to pay reparations to colonised countries. She was met with a chorus of boos. Akiwowo’s reply was gold: “You can boo me all you like, baby,” she said, before calmly addressing the audience. “Then – I’m almost finished – then we can stay in our countries and rebuild after you’ve destroyed those countries. Thank you.”
That would have been that until writer Daniellé Abena Scott-Haughton shared the video in February 2017. “Perfect. Timely,” Scott-Haughton wrote. And the video promptly went viral.
Akiwowo was in the gym when her phone stopped playing her workout playlist. “I was so confused,” she says. “I had paid my £10 for that month, so I should have been getting unlimited playlists, right? But no, my music was interrupted because I was getting notifications on my Twitter and YouTube account, and also via email.”
Those ‘notifications’ contained some of the most “nasty” forms of online abuse she had ever seen. “All forms of the n-word,” Akiwowo sighs. “Death threats, threats about Blacks being exterminated, misogyny, sexism… I couldn’t believe it.” Some of the threats included references to sexual violence, FGM and lynching.
She immediately petitioned Twitter to do something about the torrent of abuse.
“I got no response,” she says. “I was reporting it, I was making complaints, but nothing. I was more frustrated at that than I was the abuse. I was really annoyed that I wasn’t being taken seriously. I used [social media] in a positive way, I’ve met amazing people [on it], it’s so powerful. So for it to be this negative turn I felt really betrayed. I felt really alone.”
The experience inspired Akiwowo to launch Glitch, an advocacy group devoted to ending online abuse across the UK. Established in 2017 when Akiwowo was 25, the organisation began by offering talks and presentations to young people about handling online harassment.
Today, Glitch has a three-pronged approach, targeting policy-makers to change the law around online harassment, working with social media organisations on improving their safety policies for users, and delivering workshops to more than 2,000 young people around the UK, focussing on fostering a safe and protected environment for vulnerable groups online.
“No-one is supporting young people with how to navigate the online world,” Akiwowo says. “Everyone assumes that because we grew up with the Internet we know how to navigate it properly. Just because know how to do Word Art on Windows 97 doesn’t mean we know how to respond when someone says something mean to us.”
Glitch’s focus is on young people, and in particular young women. Plan UK reports that almost a quarter of girls have received online abuse, with 43% censoring themselves online for fear of inciting trolls. And 13% of girls have left social media altogether because of the threat of online harassment. “Harassment has such an impact on somebody’s psychological wellbeing,” she says. “Ignoring it only suppresses it.”
The danger of isolating women from social media, though, is that they isolate themselves from the world. “There are girls under the age of 18 not engaging online, in policy and politics and core discussions about identity, all things that help you form your identity as a woman,” Akiwowo explains. “These girls are missing out on that opportunity.”
But the solution isn’t to cut social media from your life, nor is it to simply mute or block every troll who spurts abuse into your feed.
“If I was being catcalled or harassed, and someone was trying to touch me up, would you tell me as a woman to not walk down that street, or to not go to work because it’s not safe?” Akiwowo asks. “You don’t remove the person who is being targeted, you make that environment safer so that person is no longer a target.”
Akiwowo wants to reshape the way we think about abuse online. With the increase in domestic violence perpetrated through social media – from revenge porn to deepfakes – and the blurring of boundaries between the online and offline worlds, Akiwowo wants digital harassment to be as closely policed and monitored as any other form of abuse.
It’s a big task. But if anyone is up to it, it’s Akiwowo. After running in her council elections at 21, she stood down earlier this year aged 26. “It was blind stubbornness that allowed me to go for it,” she recalls. “I probably didn’t realise what I was getting myself in for… I thought, why not? Why shouldn’t I be able to stand for my community?”
She stood down because she wanted to spend the next four years tackling a new challenge. “I didn’t want to get stuck in party politics,” she adds. “I wanted to be able to make a difference in other ways.”
Her first mission? “Getting people to unlearn this behaviour that we have to tolerate these things online. We don’t.”
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Images: Courtesy of Seyi Akiwowo, Unsplash