Online abuse of female public figures having ‘devastating impact’

Big tech should be held ‘criminally responsible’ for algorithms that ‘reward misogyny’

Lord mayor of Dublin Hazel Chu: ‘You wonder whether it’s worth it. Did I really go into public office and serve the public to deal with this crap?’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Lord mayor of Dublin Hazel Chu: ‘You wonder whether it’s worth it. Did I really go into public office and serve the public to deal with this crap?’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Europe-wide legislation is urgently needed to tackle the rise in online threats of physical and sexual violence female politicians and public figures are suffering, a discussion on cyber abuse has heard.

Social media companies should be held “criminally responsible” for failing to take action against algorithms that “reward misogyny”, Friday’s webinar, hosted by the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI), was told.

Campaigner and businesswoman Gina Miller, who has become a hate figure for many Brexit supporters, said there had been an “avalanche of abuse” against women in recent years and that multinational companies must be subject to legal repercussions if online harassment continues.

Social media platforms have “a duty of care and responsibility” to their users, she said. “Why should they be able to profit and become billionaires while so many in society are being victimised?” she asked. “There has to be a legislative and financial burden on these platforms. It’s time for short, sharp shock – they’ll feel it in their pockets.”

Research being carried out by NUI Galway found that 96 per cent of Irish female Oireachtas members and councillors surveyed had received online “hate mail” while nearly three-quarters had been threatened with physical violence via social media.

Nearly 40 per cent of participants in the ongoing study have been threatened with rape or sexual violence, while one in five said they were worried about their family’s safety.

A fifth of respondents said they had considered quitting politics because of the abuse, while some said social media companies and gardaí did not take the threats seriously. The report found online abuse was having a “chilling effect on women sustaining political careers” and called for greater action “against algorithms that reward misogyny”.

Hate crime law

Tom Felle, head of journalism and communications at NUIG, who co-authored the report, said social media companies should be held “criminally responsible” and face “fines running into the millions” if they failed to act against threats of violence.

Fine Gael MEP Maria Walsh acknowledged that while men also experience online abuse, it is “disproportionately focused on women and young girls”. She echoed calls for legislation to tackle the problem, adding that female journalists also suffered high levels of online harassment.

Ms Walsh also said the State’s proposed hate crime legislation did not sufficiently address the issue of online hatred and discrimination.

Dublin lord mayor Hazel Chu agreed that Irish hate crime legislation must be applicable in online forums and admitted considering leaving politics because of the “surreal and frightening” abuse she and her family had been subjected to in recent years. Ms Chu detailed receiving threats of torture and calls for her deportation, adding that some people had called for her young daughter to be deported “like all other Chinese babies”. Cyber abuse does “not stop online” and abusers eventually feel “emboldened” to “show up on your doorstep”, she said.

“You wonder whether it’s worth it. ‘Did I really go into public office and serve the public to deal with this crap?’ ”

Colm O’Gorman of Amnesty International Ireland said targeted online harassment was “directly silencing women”, with women of colour “disproportionately targeted”.

He warned online harassment was being accepted as “the new norm” and that people risked losing sight of its “devastating impact” on people’s lives. Social media companies should be responding to this “grave online violent abuse against women” with the same urgency with which they responded to coronavirus misinformation, he said.