Covid19 and the Online Epidemic

Online abuse has increased since Covid19 and we need your support to hold the government and tech companies to account and make online space safe for all.

Glitch strives to make our online space safe and inclusive arena for all digital citizens to participate in. Since forming in 2017, Glitch has campaigned to make online spaces safe for all, particularly women, girls and people with intersecting identities who are disproportionately affected by online abuse. 

Gender, race, and online abuse since Covid19

“We’re guests in a male space”

Increased time spent online during COVID-19 coincided with increased online abuse for our respondents. One said, “Social media has always tended to be contentious and abusive but since COVID and lockdown I believe the vitriol has increased exponentially.” 

Across the world, towns and cities went into lockdown in response to the Covid19 pandemic. For many, the only way to remain connected with loved ones and continue with work was to spend increasing time online. During the first days of lockdown, daytime internet usage more than doubled in the UK. Concerned with media reports and warnings by civil society organisations, of growing online and offline abuse in the early days of COVID-19 amid increased reliance on the internet and social media, Glitch launched a nationwide online survey to document the impact that lockdown had on online abuse against women and non-binary people. Our survey is a first attempt to provide insights into the impact of gender-based and intersectional online abuse. 

The results confirmed our fears.

Of 484 women and non-binary people surveyed:

-> 46% of respondents reported experiencing online abuse since the beginning of COVID-19. This figure increased to 50% for Black and minoritised women and non-binary people.

-> Of those who had experienced online abuse in the 12 months before the survey, 29% reported it being worse during COVID-19 - Black and minoritised women and non-binary people were more likely to report suffering increased online abuse during COVID-19, with 38% saying that the pandemic had led to increased online abuse. 

-> Most of the abuse took place on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

-> 84% of respondents experienced online abuse from strangers.

-> 77% of respondents reported modifying their behaviour online as a result of the abuse, and 72% reported feeling differently about using technology and social media. This increased to 87.5% and 78% respectively for women and non-binary individuals of colour. 

-> 83% of respondents who reported one or several incidents of online abuse during COVID-19 felt their complaint(s) had not been properly addressed. This proportion increased to 94% for Black and minoritised women and non-binary people.  

->Only 9% of respondents received updated training from their employer on how to stay safe online while working from home, and 64% of those who did not receive any training felt that appropriate training would have been useful. 

Stalking support services reported a rise in cyber-stalking in the first four weeks of the lockdown, other examples documented by the media included unsolicited pornographic videos during online social events and ‘zoom bombing’ using racially charged and sexually explicit material.

Participants spoke of the scale of online abuse aimed at women during the pandemic and the feelings of alienation they felt on social media. “Nothing ever changes. I report lots of violent images and sexist abuse. It feels like the moderators are sexist too, as they allow it. People are cloning profiles and being abusive but write ‘parody’ in them so get away with it. There’s so much porn and violence against women and girls that it feels like a place where women aren’t treated as humans. We're guests in a male space,” a respondent wrote.

Online abuse has devastating psychological, financial, and social impacts

34% of respondents reported that online abuse had a professional, social or financial impact on them. Black and minoritised women and non-binary people were more likely to face professional, social or financial consequences, with 48% reporting having done so. 

“I try to spend less time online but I live alone and my health isn't great so it means really becoming isolated and depending on a few trusted friends to stay in contact with rather than connecting with my community more widely. I definitely feel my performance at work has suffered and I feel at risk of sanction or not having my contract renewed due to the impact on my ability to focus and my mental health,” a respondent wrote.

69% said they felt anxious following incidents of online abuse. One person shared a particularly horrific experience: “When I shared a positive message and picture of my son and me, we received a torrent of racial abuse after trolls picked up the photo. I felt afraid and vulnerable,”

“I feel silenced”

Our findings suggest that many women and non-binary people, especially from Black and minoritised backgrounds, are being driven away from certain platforms because of the abuse they face. Several respondents wrote about not feeling safe online and avoiding mainstream social media platforms altogether.

One person said: “The sheer amount of abuse aimed at women - horrendous in its level of violence and misogyny - and the failure for any of the social media platforms to address in in any real or meaningful way (possibly because they are male dominated?) has had a real impact on my mental health. I've had to take a real step back from participating in certain groups or forums, from following certain accounts or hashtags. Seeing others seemingly emboldened by abuse levels to join ‘witch-hunts’ that drive women off social media, or silence them. I, like many, no longer freely post, hyper aware that my comments or opinions, no matter how benign or uncontroversial, may attract the attention of somebody who in turn may attack or threaten me. I worry about doxing. I worry I may unwittingly say something to enrage a misogynistic type who decides I need to be ‘punished’ by harassing employers or colleagues or friends to ‘cancel’ me. I feel silenced. Because only by being silent can I guarantee to be safe.”

No action is being taken by tech companies or law enforcement

Tech companies are not doing enough to address online abuse, nor are victims of online abuse taken seriously by law enforcement. 

“As is usual with sexual harassment, the police officer I spoke to did not understand my anger at being sexually objectified. I feel as though this kind of harmful abuse which perpetuates racism and sexism is simply not taken seriously and there are no meaningful consequences for the perpetrators.” said one participant.

The deficit in digital citizenship education - already notable before the pandemic - could continue to have a deep effect on the risk of online abuse. Employers have taken limited action to provide training to employees on how to stay safe online and to inform them of their rights and responsibilities. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic endures and we continue to rely more on technology and social media in our lives, we need an ambitious multi-sectoral response to the risk of online abuse targeting women and minoritised communities. 

We need to Fix the Glitch

We know that the online space can and should have a positive impact for everybody. The online space is a vital tool in strengthening communities, building democracy, and inspiring positive change.

As we continue to spend increasing amounts of time online due to COVID19 restrictions, we cannot allow online abuse to stifle freedom of expression and hold back our democracy. We must not let our online spaces become unsafe for the women and girls who deserve citizenship. Our communities are suffering online: we need to Fix the Glitch. 

We run Digital Citizenship Workshops for young people, we campaign to hold the government and tech companies to account, we provide Digital Self Care and Digital Self Defence training, toolkits and resources for workplaces. We are the only charity operating at the intersections of gender, race and online abuse. We have made great strides so far, but we cannot do this alone.

Help us to create a safe online space that everyone can participate in, without fear of abuse, by donating to Glitch today. All donations made through this appeal will fund ongoing vital research, advocacy and training efforts on the impact of the covid-19 pandemic and gender-based violence online.


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