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  • Elizabeth Murray

Women Are Witnessing a Surge in Harassment in an Increasingly Digital World

Social media has undoubtedly changed the way we interact and connect with people across the globe. Online communities can include people of different nationalities and generations with the same interest, and they can spread powerful messages in a globally connected society. This new age where everyone is given a platform has also opened up a new lane for the harassment of women.

Online harassment of women can range from name calling to violent threats and revenge porn. Often, harassment isn’t lurking in the shadows—if you simply scroll through the comments on a post or video of women doing practically anything there'll be several sexist comments.

No one is exempt from online harassment, either. In 2019, Buckingham Palace had to issue a statement saying it would block accounts posting anything offensive on its social media pages in response to a wave of bullying against Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle.

For women who are publicly active on social media, harassment is to be expected. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center found women were twice as likely as men to report that they were harassed online, with 21% of younger women saying they were sexually harassed online. That same study found that 70% of women considered online harassment to be a major problem.

While sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have rules about what kinds of content users can post, these rules are notoriously vague or lax. As a result, women often have to fight harassers on their own by either responding, which oftentimes makes things worse, or blocking the account, but even that could have adverse effects. In an opinion piece for the Guardian on why she left Twitter, Lindy West wrote, "I talk back and I am 'feeding the trolls.' I say nothing and the harassment escalates. I report threats and I am a 'censor.' I use mass-blocking tools to curb abuse and I am abused further for blocking 'unfairly.'"

The harassment can go beyond verbal abuse: some situations can actively put women in danger or ruin their lives. Women make up 70% of stalking and stalking by proxy victims. Revenge porn, which is arguably one of the most despicable forms of online harassment, is when explicit photos which were shared with a victim's previous partner are shared online without their consent. Women make up 95% of revenge porn victims, which is not a federal crime. Taking down revenge porn can be especially difficult when no laws are in place to protect victims. In some cases, victims have to get a copyright to prove it's their body to have the websites take the photos down. Death threats are illegal under the law, but if local law enforcement isn’t familiar with social media platforms, which is fairly common, victims are out of luck.

The psychological effects of online harassment can often be debilitating. Victims of abuse can experience stress, anxiety, panic attacks, and lower self esteem. It’s not as simple as turning off the computer—we use the internet so much nowadays that online harassment can infiltrate someone's work, education and family life.

Over the span of a few decades, the internet has become a truly toxic place for women. Simply expressing an opinion online can lead to a myriad of misogynistic comments and threats from complete strangers. We have to ask ourselves what communities we are fostering in an increasingly interconnected world. If an entire gender cannot feel safe on the internet, then we are on a dangerous path.

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