Six months after the explosive allegations of sexual harassment against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein came to light, giving impetus to the #MeToo movement, this series looks at the aftermath of the movement, and if it has brought about lasting change to sexual harassment and gender equality.
Although Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement arose initially as a way to capture and share experiences of abuse and harassment in the physical world, there’s another layer we must acknowledge – online abuse. It’s real, and it’s creating harm.
Women who share experiences of #MeToo, or who write about gender issues and political content more broadly, are frequent targets of one-off and sometimes sustained experiences of online abuse. This includes not only abusive comments and trolling, but also rape threats, death threats and offline stalking.
Any actions that are created as a result of #MeToo must include the online space.
Read more: #MeToo is not enough: it has yet to shift the power imbalances that would bring about gender equality
Women are targets
Writer Laura Gianino knows only too well what can happen when women speak up. After writing about her own sexual assault, she was viciously attacked online. She describes her concern for women sharing their experiences through the #MeToo hashtag:
I applaud these women, and I also fear for them. I fear that they will be beaten down by the slut-shamers, and the victim-blamers, by the internet trolls, and the possible real-life trolls.
The stats back up Gianino’s fears. Recent research by the PEW Center for Media in the US shows women are twice as likely to experience abusive and/or harassing behaviours online. This finding is supported by research from Amnesty International UK.
When your job requires social media
For women working in public-facing roles in politics, business and the media (and even academia) – where social media use is often seen as “part of the job” – the problem is worse. The 2016 Australia’s Women in Media’s (WiM) “Mates over Merit” report noted that “41% of women said they’d been harassed, bullied or trolled on social media, while engaging with audiences”.
In their more recent submission to the ongoing Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Inquiry into cyberbullying in Australia, WiM says the problem is getting worse.
Online life is real life
Cyber psychologists report that the psychological harms of online harassment are as severe, and sometimes more severe, as harassment endured in the physical world. Online, victims can feel there’s no escape.
Read more: #MeToo exposes legal failures, but ‘trial by Twitter' isn’t one of them
Online abuse also has economic and social impacts, particularly when women choose to quit or avoid work where threats of harm and abuse are not uncommon (such as politics).
For example, WiM reports that some members had left journalism as a result of their experiences online. A communications manager with more than 20 years’ experience said:
It’s had a huge impact, including being the cause of changing my career as a journalist.
Social media platforms can do more
Unsurprisingly, social media is social – it’s people interacting with people. What happens in comments sections, on Facebook posts or Twitter threads is a reflection of the social power structures we all deal with on a daily basis. When social media platforms fail to act in a timely or consistent manner, or at all when users report abuse or harassment online, it reinforces those structures.
Last year, Amnesty International UK pointed to the need for better training for all staff – including developers, researchers, and especially moderators – at social media companies.
In particular, platforms must be proactive rather than reactive in addressing these issues, and conduct public imposition of policies to ensure abusers are held accountable.
Read more: Facebook turns to real people to fix its violent video problem
The workplace can step up
In workplaces where social media use is expected or encouraged, the additional dangers women face in this environment need to be acknowledged and acted upon. Adequate training and support for staff members should be provided - including education about available legal options, and the creation of internal reporting mechanisms.
An example to consider is the ABC’s Social Media Self Defence course. Started by Rod McGuinness in 2015, its aim is to equip ABC journalists, in particular women, with the skills and knowledge they need to make their experiences on social media less stressful. For McGuinness, this is part of a “duty of care” the ABC has to its employees.
We also need to consider how we support freelance or contract workers, like journalist Ginger Gorman, who has written extensively about her online experiences. Workers like these often don’t have access to workplace training and support, and also rely more heavily on their social media presence to generate paid work.
Better responses from law enforcement
In 2016, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull pledged millions to address online abuse and “revenge porn”. The Senate’s current inquiry into the adequacy of existing law enforcement measures to deal with cyberbullying is a step in the right direction. Hopefully it will lead to the establishment of clearer guidelines around reporting. The committee is due to report on March 28.
Similarly, recent initiatives by state and territory police forces to better educate their officers around the issue are to be praised, as is the establishment of the Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network (ACORN).
Read more: How #MeToo can guide sex education in schools
That said, as submissions to the inquiry show, much still needs to be done to ensure that the police and the public are aware not just that cyberharassment or bullying is a crime, but how they might report it. These regulations need to be consistent across the country in recognition of the borderless nature of the online environment.
The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements feel like a great moment of reckoning. As we work through these discussions, we also need to acknowledge that today’s workplace now extends beyond physical spaces. This means recognising the additional dangers women face in online spaces, such as social media, and acting to combat this.