Lockdown has led to an epidemic of online abuse – it’s time for institutions to tackle this

Seyi Akiwowo, Founder and Executive Director of Glitch

Seyi Akiwowo, is the Founder and Executive Director of Glitch, a small charity dedicated to ending online abuse and championing digital citizenship.

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Lauren Pemberton-Nelson, Senior Communications Coordinator at Glitch

Lauren Pemberton-Nelson is the Senior Communications Coordinator for Glitch, heading up social media, the website and other forms of communications.

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This article is part of a series in which leading experts reflect on emerging trends for cities seeking to address hate, polarisation and extremism.

With bedrooms and kitchens turning into offices over the past six months as Britain and other countries around the world introduce measures to stem virus transmission, we’ve seen a magnitude of unforeseen consequences. Across the country, incidents of domestic violence have rocketed and mental health problems have seen widespread deterioration. A vital and yet tragically overlooked consequence has been the ripple effect playing out on our online spaces, leading to an epidemic of online abuse, especially for women and non-binary people. Now that a new report has exposed that almost half of UK women and non-binary people have experienced online abuse since the lockdown, it’s time institutions deal with this growing problem.

In June, Glitch, a UK charity tackling online abuse, along with the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW), launched a nationwide survey to investigate the gendered impact of COVID-19 on online spaces. With nearly five hundred respondents, the survey represents the largest data investigation into gender-based and intersectional online abuse during the pandemic in the UK. In a new report The Ripple Effect: Covid-19 and the Epidemic of Online Abuse, it presented a stark picture of the experiences of women and non-binary people, 92% of which have reported using the internet more during the pandemic. For many ‘ordinary’ women and non-binary people who have experienced harmful behaviours online, their struggles have been widely ignored by a host of institutions, from their employers to the government and social media companies.

The survey, which took place over the course of a month during the summer, showed that 46% of respondents reported experiencing online abuse since the beginning of COVID-19, whilst 29% had experienced online abuse prior to COVID-19 that had worsened with the lockdown. Whilst gender was the most cited reason for online abuse, with 48% of survey respondents suffering from gender-based abuse, many also reported experiencing abuse where gender intersected with race, sexual orientation, disability or gender identity/expression.

Investigating how women and non-binary people have been impacted amid this growing epidemic of online abuse showed that, in most aspects, Black and minoritised people were more likely to have experienced an increase in online abuse. They were also more likely to modify their behaviours as a result and were more likely to feel like their complaints had not been addressed. If we are to truly tackle online abuse, we can no longer ignore that women and non-binary people – especially those from already marginalised communities – are disproportionately impacted.

It’s undeniable that there are many competing priorities for the government as a result of the pandemic, but investing money and energy to tackle online abuse is not something we can keep kicking further down the road. With over a third of respondents reporting a professional, social and financial impact, it’s clear that the harms thriving in our online spaces during COVID-19 have caused an acute deterioration for the livelihoods and welfare of women and non-binary people.

Workplaces need to step up too, remote or otherwise. 64% of employees who hadn’t received training from their employer on responding to online abuse said that such training would be useful, while almost 10% had directly experienced online abuse from their colleagues. Employers urgently need to invest in training and digital education programmes for the health and welfare of their employees and help drive awareness and proactive steps to counter abuse. By implementing a comprehensive public health approach to dealing with online abuse, the Government can equip employers with the knowledge they need to keep their employees working from home safe.

The report paints a stark picture of how COVID-19 lockdown measures have amplified and extended online harms and become a fertile breeding ground for abuse. The dozens of key findings from this report highlight the exacerbation of risks to women and non-binary people from online abuse, especially those from marginalised communities. With remote working likely to become a more permanent fixture for the UK, and the possibility of a second peak not a million miles away, it’s more important than ever that institutions at every level play their part in tackling this scourge in our communities.

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