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Online harassment towards women is a freedom of expression crisis

2 April 2021

Online harassment is a threat to women’s participation in public communication. It’s both a gender equality struggle and a freedom of expression crisis that needs to be understood and taken very seriously. Online harassment isn’t just threats of violence and defamation, it can also be very subtle and continuous, and it’s this constant low-level hate, anger and even just nastiness that can wear someone down.

Over the past year, I’ve been looking into how to deal with online hate. I’ve studied reports, of which there are very few, and I’ve reached out to journalists and fellow bloggers, and the responses are often the same…

It comes with the territory. You just have to grow a thicker skin.

Online harassment is not something that is widely talked about, but it’s such a real thing that needs to be taught in schools, at universities, in workshops, and by social media platforms.

My third run of Bloggers of the Future is about to begin, and I’ve added in a new topic to the syllabus: dealing with online abuse and difficult commenters. We’ll be discussing this in depth, but I want to share with you the some highlights, as I feel this is such an important topic.

Let me break down what I deal with on a daily basis in four concise descriptions.

‘The Arsehole’

Stays quiet and never comments on anything until there’s a small potential error that they feel they need to address publicly, more often than not in a patronising way. What I find is that The Arsehole is often wrong. Never there to be positive and give credit where it’s due, but always there, lurking, ready and poised to be the first to criticise.

What’s your source?

‘The Defender’

It’s hard hearing that something you value has a darker context that you realised. But it’s okay to read something and let it change your mind. Those who often return to what they were told many years ago and explain it as gospel without any research are a lost cause – I can’t change their mind. For example:

You don’t understand because you’re not from here.

‘The Derailer’

Tries to distract from the issue at hand by commenting on how other countries, populations, governments and leaders have done bad things too. Simultaneously refuses to acknowledge the issue presented. For example:

Spanish people have no right to be upset by xenophobia when they colonised America.

‘The Troll’

The foul-mouthed messages, the subtle threats, the racism, misogyny, hate. Their words are unfounded but personal, designed to undermine and attack. They’re the nastiest of all, but also the easiest to ignore. For example:

If you don’t like it, go back to where you came from.

This is one of the lighter comments I often receive. I don’t want to share with you others I receive as they’re too disturbing and I don’t want to give their words a platform.


The International Centre for Journalists conducted a survey and here are some of their findings:

  • Nearly three in four women have experienced online violence, 18% of whom have had threats of sexual violence.
  • The mental health impacts of online violence were the most frequently identified consequence constituting 26%.
  • Almost half of the women in the survey reported being harassed with unwanted private messages.
  • Facebook was rated the least safe of the top five platforms used by participants, with nearly double the number of respondents describing Facebook as “very unsafe”.
  • Only 25% of respondents reported incidents of online violence to their employers. The top responses they said they received were: no response (10%) and advice like “grow a thicker skin” or “toughen up” (9%). Almost 100 women said they were asked what they did to provoke the attack.
  • A third of women journalists surveyed indicated that they respond to the online violence they experience by self-censoring on social media. Twenty percent described how they withdrew from all online interaction, and 18% specifically avoided audience engagement.
  • Online violence significantly impacts employment and productivity. In particular, 11% reported missing work, 38% retreated from visibility (e.g. by asking to be taken off air, removing photos of them online, and retreating behind pseudonyms), 4% quit their jobs, and 2% even abandoned journalism altogether.

It’s time, especially as minority voices, that we stand up against online abuse – acute and chronic, threatening and disrespectful. Be brave, don’t let them force you to retreat and make standing tall your default position.

This article is part of my behind-the-scenes Patreon content. If you’d like to support what I do, then become a MNF Patron from just $1 a month.

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1 Comment

Ann Davis 2 April 2021 at 11:29 pm

Leah, your writing is a breath of fresh air as you talk about subjects many ignore or skirt around. Whilst not always easy to ignore those who try to derail you please know there are far many of us who support and value you.


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