Big tech gets on board to improve online spaces for women

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Stopping online abuse and harassment of women − who represent close to 50% of the population – must be treated with the same seriousness and resources that other social ills are addressed.

So says Emily Sharpe, the World Wide Web Foundation’s director of policy, following the commitment by four of the world’s largest social media platforms to address online gender-based violence (GBV) and abuse.

At the UN Generation Equality Forum in Paris this week, Facebook, Google, TikTok and Twitter announced the steps they will take to ensure their platforms don’t serve as breeding grounds for online abuse against women and girls.

Their commitment follow a more than a year-long consultation process between the four platforms, the Web Foundation, and over 120 civil society and government experts from around the world, including SA.

Sharpe highlights that the prevalence of online GBV is widespread, with studies indicating that 38% of women globally have directly experienced online abuse. For women of colour, black women in particular, for women from the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalised groups – the abuse is often far worse.

In some parts of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that online GBV is growing, as people increasingly live their lives online, she states.

That is why sound policy recommendations and concrete solutions to address these issues are needed, according to Sharpe, adding that the four tech companies’ commitment marks a step in the right direction.

“We applaud the four companies that have come to the table and engaged on this; it really shows strong will on their part that they are willing to be so involved.

“People tend to conceive online GBV as an annoyance and something small; it’s not. It has real consequences in the online and offline world, as sometimes that online violence can transition to offline violence.”

Prominent women around the world have signed an open letter recognising these promises and saying they must now lead to action.

Emily Sharpe, World Wide Web Foundation director of policy.
Emily Sharpe, World Wide Web Foundation director of policy.

Based on the Web Foundation’s research, some of the challenges that women face online include non-consensual sharing of images and doxing.

Sharpe notes the biggest challenge that comes up in consultations with women from all over the world – no matter their age or profession – is uncertainty about reporting systems of online GBV.

“They don’t know where the reports go, if and when they will hear back, what happens to the reports. They can’t really trace them and they also find that they aren’t able to add nuance to the report. There is a lot of context that gets lost if women aren’t able to share the nuances of why they are reporting certain pieces of content, like a photo or a text.

“The other issue is about basic control over who they interact with. For example, many women said that if their content goes viral or they post something, they may get a pile of dozens or hundreds or thousands of people posting abusive comments on their posts. Companies need to create better ways of helping women control those comments and reduce the harm they see online.”

Online abuse has also been highlighted as posing a growing threat to progress on gender equality. “We think that online GBV is one of the greatest barriers to women participating equally online,” states Sharpe.

For example, 7% of women who receive online GBV end up leaving their jobs, which has a huge effect on women emotionally and leads to real economic impact, she notes.

“For young women of today who want to become journalists, politicians or run businesses that are otherwise engaged in public discourse online, it means if they see or experience online GBV themselves, they might be discouraged from fully participating in the online space, which, now more than ever, is how we live our life for those of us lucky to be online.”

Big tech steps up

The main areas the tech companies have committed to focus on are improving reporting systems and improving the way women control their experiences online on their platforms.

To allow women better ways to curate their safety online, the companies have committed to:

  • Offer more granular settings (eg, who can see, share, comment or reply to posts).
  • Use more simple and accessible language throughout the user experience.
  • Provide easy navigation and access to safety tools.
  • Reduce the burden on women by proactively reducing the amount of abuse they see.

To improve the reporting systems, the companies will:

  • Offer users the ability to track and manage their reports.
  • Enable greater capacity to address context and/or language.
  • Provide more policy and product guidance when reporting abuse.
  • Establish additional ways for women to access help and support during the reporting process.

Says the Web Foundation: “Companies have committed to exploring and testing the prototypes and solutions developed during the workshops. This includes features that let women better manage who can engage with their posts, and more options to filter certain types of content, as well as strengthening reporting systems so users can track and manage reports of abuse.

“The companies will also ensure solutions are addressed within a set and clear time frame, and will regularly publish and share meaningful data and insights on their progress in implementing these commitments.”

According to the Web Foundation, it will report annually on how tech companies have progressed in achieving these goals.

“We look forward to working with other leaders and companies in the technology space to make the Internet a safer place for all women across the globe,” states Antigone Davis, Facebook global head of safety.

Sharpe concludes: “We can’t unwind the sexism that is prevalent in society, but these companies can really play an important role in, at the least, making it a safer environment for when women do go online.”

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