The exasperating lack of progress on women’s and girls’ digital rights

Last week, we marked yet another International Women’s Day (Yes, there’s an International Men’s day, too. Don’t worry. It’s November 19th). This is supposed to be a day when we celebrate progress in women’s rights such as gender equality or reproductive rights, and ending abuse against women.

The UN chose as its theme for this year’s International Women’s Day (IWD) “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality”. The idea is to create a more inclusive environment for women and girls in technology. The lack of inclusion prevents women from accessing highly paid jobs and contributing fully to society, while also reducing innovation and creativity in the sector, as humorously illustrated by this Ford advert launched on IWD 2023:

Happy International Women’s Day ❤️ Shout out to Ford for this awesome commercial. #foryoupage #fyp #internationalwomensday #commercials #ford #iwd2023

♬ original sound – Yoink

That journey, as the UN recognises, starts with tackling the problem of online violence against women and girls. In the UK, for instance, 1 in 5 women suffered online abuse or harassment, of which half was of a sexist or misogynistic nature.

Against this backdrop, it is really exasperating to see how Musk’s management of Twitter is emboldening misogynist and abusive accounts on the platform. Not only has he welcomed back onto the platform accounts known for that type of content, but his aggressive cost cutting measures (which included making entire trust and safety teams redundant) mean that the company is less able to limit that content and report abuses to law enforcement.

Research conducted by my colleague Lilith A. Whiley shows why that is a problem.

Lilith A. Whiley, Lukasz Walasek and Marie Juanchich designed two intervention tweets, aimed at reducing online gender harassment on Twitter. One of the intervention tweets used empathy inducing messaging, a technique that has been shown to reduce racist messaging, and improve attitudes towards homeless people and those living with HIV. The other used social re-norming messaging, a technique which has been shown to increase compliance with online community guidelines and reduce intentions to harass in Facebook groups. Yet even though those techniques had been shown to work in other contexts, they did not work in the context of sexist or misogynist tweets. 

As reported by Whiley, Walasek and Juanchich, in the paper “Contributions to reducing online gender harassment: Social re-norming and appealing to empathy as tried-and-failed techniques”, published in Feminism & Psychology:

“(T)the rate of sexist slurs and users did not vary greatly before and after the intervention (see rows in bold). In the social re-norming condition, there was an increase in the number of sexist slurs while the number of Twitter users who tweeted a sexist slur remained stable. In the empathy condition, we noticed both an increased trend in the number of sexist slurs and an increase in the number of users who tweeted a sexist slur. However, the most important increase in sexist slurs and users occurred in the control condition.” (page 14)

Image source

The authors argue that this disappointing result could be the outcome of a range of systemic factors, including:

  • “Sexism is deeply ingrained in society and online gender harassment is normalised on the Internet.” For instance, “research shows that racism is generally believed to be more offensive than sexism” (page 18). And the relative anonymity of online profiles makes the problem worse.
  • Women who confront sexism tend to be denigrated and their opinions discounted (pages 18-19)

In summary, online abuse against women is a very hard problem to solve. So, if we are to make any progress on the UN stated goals of improving women’s and girls’ rights online, we need an institutional-level approach. In my view, this includes the direct responsibilisation of the platforms that host this type of content. That is why I, for one, was delighted with the news that the EU is demanding that Twitter put more moderators and fact checkers in place, in line with its duties under the Digital Services Act. I hope that they succeed, and that the UK follows swiftly with similar measures, so that next year, finally, we can replace intentions with celebrations, on International Women’s Day.

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