Laura Bates: Violence Against Women Online

Online abuse began for me when I started the Everyday Sexism Project – before it had become particularly high-profile or received many entries. Even at that stage, it was attracting around 200 abusive messages a day. The messages included detailed, graphic, and explicit descriptions of rape and domestic violence. When it was through Twitter, it was clearly in response to news stories where I was one of the people speaking out about online abuse. It was like there was a backlash – people making threats about you because you are speaking up about rape threats.

I found it difficult not to be scared about my safety initially. The psychological impact of reading through someone’s really graphic thoughts about raping and murdering you is not necessarily acknowledged. You could be sitting at home in your living room, outside of working hours, and suddenly someone is able to send you an incredibly graphic rape threat right into the palm of your hand. There tends to be a general reaction of, ‘if you know they’re trying to scare you, why would you be worried?’ But when you’re receiving the abuse on such a large scale, it’s hard not think that it only takes one person to follow through.

Social media companies aren’t stepping up and being held accountable for protecting the safety of their users. In my experience of reporting accounts to Twitter, there’s a safety gap in terms of how their terms and conditions — which are quite vaguely worded — are interpreted. When I reported things to Twitter, it very rarely resulted in anybody being suspended. But when I was put in touch with someone who was higher up in the company, they took action and removed the harassment. I think that’s significant because it shows that there’s a real gap between the small number of people who are engaged with these tech companies and everyday users.

We are seeing young women and teenage girls experiencing online harassment as a normal part of their existence online. It’s an invisible issue right now, but it might be having a major impact on the future political participation of those girls and young women. We won’t necessarily see the outcome of that before it’s too late.