Blog by Linda Witong, SI Special Advisor to Advocacy.
Being aware of the fact that international research had determined that women and girls were subjected to very high levels of online abuse simply because they were women, I joined this seminar to learn more about the perils of being a woman while using the internet. I was not disappointed as our guide during this seminar was Karen Pasfield, an expert in this area and the Senior Executive Assistant within the Office of the eSafety Commissioner in Australia.
According to Pasfield, research, and experience showed that women did indeed face unacceptably high levels of abuse online. Prior to the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, 30% of women in Australia reported that they had experienced online abuse or harassment. Of those women the young females aged 18-24 were the most vulnerable (47%). In addition, according to eSafety’s own 2019 research into online hate speech, among those targeted, a significantly higher proportion of women than men also attributed the experience to their gender and physical appearance. In addition, 37% of the women said that, on at least one occasion, these online experiences made them feel that their physical safety was threatened. Women who were in professions or very young girls were not exempt from these threats. A 2019 report, ‘Don’t read the comments; Enhancing online safety for women working in the media’, highlighted the difficulties faced by Australian women in their professional life, some of whom paid a very high price for maintaining the active online presence expected as part of their job. As to girls, seven out of ten Australian girls aged 15 to 19 believed online harassment and bullying was endemic. For these women, receiving unwanted and uninvited sexually explicit content online was also considered common behaviour.
While the COVID-19 pandemic had revolutionised the way we communicated and in many ways offered us a variety of tools to socialise, work or attend school online. Social media, video-conferencing apps, voice calls and text chats had also increased the amount of online harassment, intimidation and abuse which was directed at women. 67% of females were the victims of behaviour involving abuse such as harassment (36%) defamation(19%) and stalking (8%). According to Pasfield, there was also a 114% increase in image based abuse against women and a 90% increase in child sexual abuse online. 90% of the perpetrators were men and 84% were girls. The age of children who were involved as victims of cyberbullying decreased from the age of 14 to the age of 8 or 9 years old and involved girls more than boys. Unfortunately 70% of such bullying involved one’s own peers. Serious cyberbullying of a minor also increased by 30%. According to Pasfield, such bullying was often hidden from adults as 55% of the children would not talk to others when cyberbullying happened online. In other cases, the children who were engaged in cyberbullying were doing it to “get back” at their tormentors.
Escalation in volume abuse also increased. This involved cases where a victim received an avalanche of abuse online for e.g. voicing her opinion, for being among the 56% of women who were the target of misogyny or for being member of a vulnerable population. Escalation in volume abuse could overwhelm the victim often resulting in a “silencing effect”. According to Pasfield, this might include the victim self-censoring her comments, limiting her participation online or even withdrawing from public life.
Several other forms of online abuse specifically raised a red flag as such abuse could indicate that a suspect was capable of more dangerous behaviour in the future. One example involved image based abuse. According to Pasfield 1 in 10 of women or girls had experienced IBA and women were two times more likely to experience this form of abuse than men. 24% of these women were young i.e. aged 18-24 years. But of particular concern, was the fact that 54% of IBA’s related to a victim and suspect with a history of family violence and, in 25% of those cases, the suspect had already violated a court protective order. IBA had also soared since the beginning of the pandemic.
In addition, Technical Facilitated Abuse (TFA) which involves behaviour such as threats, intimidation, harassment, stalking, monitoring, impersonation or the humiliation of a victim was also considered to be a red flag warning of more dangerous behaviour in the future on the part of the suspect especially in domestic violence cases.
Pasfield also addressed online abuse against female politicians as female politicians tended to experience violence at higher rates than other women including unexpectedly high levels of online abuse. A female politician’s response to such abuse when it occurred ranged from 50% blocking the contacts, 32% thinking twice before posting again, 30%minimising their online presence and 20% who stopped using the platform. In some cases, they would even step away from being active in politics or public life.
After hearing about the minefield of dangers that existed online, we were grateful for Pasfield giving us a number of sites to refer to for further education on a particular topic or to learn more about social media self-defence . Pasfield referred us to sites where women and girls could learn more about safety online during the pandemic for example through government sites: https://www.esafety.gov.au/key-issues/covid-19 or https://www.esafety.gov.au/women/know-facts-about-women-online or government sites which showed various ways which had been used by other women to deal with online abuse. It was called WITS or referred to as women with WITS: https://www.esafety.gov.au/women/women-influencing-tech-spaces/about
This can profoundly damage their confidence, self-esteem and feelings of personal safety.
Seven out of ten Australian girls aged 15 to 19 believed online harassment and bullying was endemic. For these women, receiving unwanted and uninvited sexually explicit content online was also considered common behaviour.
Women and girls were more likely to be vulnerable to image-based abuse
- More than one in 10 (11%) of women responding to the survey who had experienced abuse or harassment online said personal or identifying details of them had been shared online (also known as ‘doxing’).
- Women (39%) were more likely than men (30%) to be victimised by an intimate partner or ex-partner. [Henry, N., Powell, A. & Flynn, A. (2017). Not Just ‘Revenge Pornography’: Australians’ Experiences of Image-Based Abuse]
Women are particularly vulnerable to image-based abuse
- Women – are twice as men likely to have their nude/sexual images shared without consent (15% women aged 18+, 7% of men aged 18+)
- Young adults aged 18 to 24 – and, again particularly women in this age group (24% women compared to 16% men)
Being abused online could be profoundly damaging
- More than 3 in 5 (62%) of those who said they had experienced online abuse or harassment said they had experienced lower self-esteem or loss of self-confidence as a result.
- A similar proportion (59%) said they had experienced stress, anxiety or panic attacks after experiencing online abuse or harassment.
- 62% said they had not been able to sleep well as a result of online abuse or harassment.
- About half (49%) said online abuse or harassment had meant that they had been unable to concentrate for long periods of time.
- Two-fifths (40%) of women who said that they had experienced abuse or harassment on a social media platform either ceased or decreased their use of the platforms.
- Some women are also restricting what they post about: 27% of those with an experience of online abuse or harassment said they had stopped posting content that expressed their opinion on certain issues, and 23% said they stopped sharing content that expressed their opinion on certain issues.
 https://www.esafety.gov.au/women/know-facts-about-women-online accessed 3/15/21
 https://www.cnn.com/videos/world/2020/10/21/coronavirus-impact-domestic-abuse-global-australia-jba-lon-orig.cnn See also: https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/lifelong-impacts-image-based-abuse-skyrockets-online-amid-pandemic-20201201-p56jpu.html
 See http://www.dailylife.com.au/news-and-views/dl-opinion/why-arent-employers-offering-their-staff-social-media-selfdefense-training-20150313-1436k3.html or social media defence at work http://www.dailylife.com.au/news-and-views/dl-opinion/why-arent-employers-offering-their-staff-social-media-selfdefense-training-20150313-1436k3.html