27 September 2023

Is social media the new frontier for gendered abuse?

Start the conversation

Susanne Legena* says women and girls are increasingly being targeted on social media and discusses what could be done to turn the tide of online gender abuse.

We’ve all seen examples of it on social media: highly violence and clearly inappropriate content that somehow doesn’t breach standards, whilst photos of breastfeeding mothers or nipples on Instagram are hastily removed from the sites.

Recently we’ve seen posts from women responding to violent threats by naming and shaming the abusers resulted in the women themselves being banned, but not their abusers. How is this fair?

Four Corners investigated this disturbing disconnect of social media community standards in 2018.

They interviewed a department of stressed, overworked community moderators.

“Just bear in mind that we all have to follow policy no matter what our personal opinions are. We have to follow this,” one anonymous moderator said.

While there is no doubt in the two years since that explosive episode aired, vast improvements have been made, it remains the case that the demand far outweighs the capacity to keep up.

And this is particularly important when you consider 2020 is a vastly different time to 2018: we’ve been thrust into the online world whether we like it or not.

And as we all cram into this space, where we work, socialise and learn, this means brushing up against people we’d rather not.

COVID-19 has produced the perfect conditions for the parallel disease of misogynist trolling to proliferate and prosper.

The e-Safety Commission recently released data that a 245 per cent increase in the distribution of intimate photos and videos without consent, a 120 per cent increase in child sexual abuse material, an 87 per cent jump in cyber bullying among young people.

A huge global study of girls’ experiences online launched by Plan International this month has found two-thirds of the 14,000 girls in 22 countries surveyed have experienced online violence: often frequently and on multiple platforms.

One in five girls (19 per cent) have left or significantly reduced use of a social media platform after being harassed, while another one in ten (12 per cent) have changed the way they express themselves.

In Australia, two-thirds (65 per cent) of girls and young women aged 15-25 have been exposed to a spectrum of online violence (higher than the global figure of 58 per cent), and half of those have suffered mental and emotional distress as a result.

One in five Australian girls and young women we surveyed have feared for their physical safety due to online threats.

What makes our research truly unique and powerful is its universality.

This is the clearest picture we have ever had that this abuse is playing out in girls’ social media feeds the world over.

The solution isn’t as simple as just opting out.

And nor should it be: social media, with all its flaws, can be a lifeline for young people.

It’s a place to seek support, to express their opinions, to find like-minded souls, to be seen and heard.

Greta Thunberg would still be known only to her classmates if she had not had a platform to spark the movement that inspired millions to march for climate action.

There is magic in the opportunities that social media provides for our young people to raise their voices and to change their destinies.

These opportunities come with a cost.

Magda Szubanski, Virginia Trioli, Leigh Sales, Miranda Tapsell, Nakkiah Lui, Chrissy Teigen, Jameela Jamil, Sarah-Hanson Young have all spoken out this year about the horrific abuse they receive every single day.

Our patience for this is wearing thin and women are clapping back.

But once again the onus is on women to bring the issues to light, to endlessly respond and report, time and time again, and to seek support and solidarity.

But by doing so they attract even more abuse and the cycle repeats.

Reporting so often feels like too little, too late, a cartoon character Band-Aid for a gaping flesh wound.

The punishment rarely fits the crime, and therein lies a big part of the problem.

Like every other form of violence, online abuse is about power.

The power to shame girls and women, to embarrass and intimidate them, to drive them out of a space they have every right to be in.

The truth is, in every space where girls exist, so does violence and abuse.

That is why, Plan International has launched a global open letter aimed squarely at the social media giants, written and led by girls from countries the world over, to do better.

That’s why we want them to collect the data, break it down by gender and age, publicise it, act, stop using reporting as the solution when prevention is so much better, be proactive, listen to girls, advocate on their behalf.

The discourse that plays out on these platforms is powerful enough to sway elections, to shape the course of human history.

But as our Prime Minister said in his address to these companies last month, with great power comes great responsibility.

There’s no doubt about it: social media is the new frontier for gendered violence and the rapid escalation we’ve witnessed during the coronavirus pandemic is chilling.

It silences girls’ voices and it causes real and lasting harm.

The good news is that since launching our Free to Be online report – Plan International Australia and our youth activists have met with social media companies and they have promised to do better. We plan to hold them to this commitment.

*Susanne Legena is the CEO of Plan International Australia.

This article first appeared at womensagenda.com.au

Start the conversation

Be among the first to get all the Public Sector and Defence news and views that matter.

Subscribe now and receive the latest news, delivered free to your inbox.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.