Just because online abuse happens every day doesn’t make it acceptable

18 Nov 2019

Image: © georgejmclittle/Stock.adobe.com

A landmark case in Ireland allows us to reframe how we think of online abuse – not as an inevitable everyday experience on the internet, but a problem that requires painstaking work and sensitivity to solve, writes Elaine Burke.

I once remarked to a young woman interviewing me for a research project that I was “lucky enough to have never experienced online abuse” as a woman working in the media. The second the words left my mouth I heard everything that was wrong with them. I instantly corrected myself: “No, that’s not right. I shouldn’t say ‘lucky’. We shouldn’t consider it luck to be treated with common decency online.”

For too many women online, frequent untoward comments, uncomfortable levels of attention and outright abuse has become so normalised as to be considered all in a day’s work. In fact, analysis from Susan Watson at the University of York, who researches the impact of social media on gender-based violence, not only shows the extent of abuse sent to women MPs on Twitter but also a considerable spike in the number of abusive tweets sent whenever these women are prominent in the media. As a woman’s online profile increases, so too does her risk of enduring online abuse.

‘We shouldn’t consider it luck to be treated with common decency online’

Last year, I had come to feel uncomfortable with the frequency at which one anonymous Twitter account commented on my tweets. The comments were benign, but their intensity made me uneasy, so I blocked the account. At the time, I worried this was an overreaction to someone who was probably just looking for a bit of attention, and I felt guilty about suppressing their voice in my notifications. I mentioned this to a group of people – all of whom worked in science communication – trying to suss out if my reaction was appropriate or not. It then became clear that this account was known by others in this group – all women, all of whom had felt the same degree of discomfort.

While it’s unclear in this case and many others whether or not this account set out to disturb people, there are just as many where the harassment is outwardly vicious in its intent and its action. Zainab Boladale, a distinguished young journalist and TV presenter known for her work with RTÉ, revealed on Saturday (16 November) the abuse she has been receiving on YouTube for months. The video platform has finally acted on Boladale’s complaints, but not before months of harassment had taken their toll on her mental health.

Slow-to-act social media platforms and a prevailing attitude that this is nothing more than someone can expect for daring to have a public profile have created a dangerous situation when it comes to reporting online abuse. So much of this abuse goes on in silence from the abused – partly because some people just want to get on with their lives and not have to deal with it, partly because of scepticism that anything can and will be done to stop the abusers, and partly because online abuse is so common it has become generally accepted as an inevitable ill effect of the internet.

Had I not discussed my own minor experience with others, I may never have been sure that my actions were warranted or that my feelings were even valid. It makes me wonder how many uneasy experiences go unspoken. The whisper network that tells people they were right to be wary of certain accounts is useful, but we need to further break the silence on online abuse.

‘It should be as easy to avoid abuse online as it is for malevolent characters to spread it. Sadly, that’s not the case.’

It’s disheartening that we would ever write off abusive commentary and harassment as par for the course, but an encouraging development last week has, at the very least, offered some validation for anyone feeling targeted online.

The conviction of Brendan Doolin for his long-running campaign of online abuse targeting countless women in the media came about because six women – Sarah Griffin, Kate McEvoy, Sinead O’Carroll, Christine Bohan, Roe McDermott and Aoife Barry – and many others drove this case forward relentlessly. Doolin’s abuse is documented as far back as 2012 and bringing this case to its conclusion has been a long and difficult battle for those involved. Thankfully, though, they were heard, they were believed, and their experience was deemed unacceptable.

Seeing a case such as this tackled with the seriousness it deserved will hopefully empower others to report online abuse when they experience it, and inform those who receive such reports in how to respond appropriately. In a joint statement, the women wrote: “We hope this case shows other men and women in this situation that what they say will be taken seriously if they come forward, and that online harassment is harassment and will be treated as such.”

Online harassment is as varied as the people who perpetrate it and the platforms that enable it to continue. As well as Gardaí who will take on the painstaking work of putting an end to campaigns of online abuse, we need platforms to enforce standards of behaviour that protect users. It should be as easy to avoid abuse online as it is for malevolent characters to spread it. Sadly, that’s not the case.

Just as I had to check my expectations in that research interview, and remind myself that what has become accepted is not acceptable in online behaviour, women online this past weekend were afforded a moment of reprieve in which a new precedent has been set. We will likely continue to expect this behaviour, sadly. But, more hopefully, we can now expect a report to be taken seriously and to be handled with sensitivity. It’s a push of the needle in the right direction for better online spaces for all.

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Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic