Why we must pay attention to women’s online safety during COVID-19

Why we must pay attention to women’s online safety during COVID-19


The fast rise of online activity is raising very real safety concerns for women, writes Caitlin McGrane from Gender Equity Victoria. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented global event. As we are forced to come together in our communities and across the world, we are collectively accessing and sharing huge volumes of health, wellbeing and safety information, as well as increasing our participation in online communities. This increase in online activity has raised some very real concerns for women – the increased demand for labour at home, the risk of being trapped at home with an abuser, and the potential increase of online abuse and harassment.

In early March 2020, Sir Tim Berners-Lee used the celebration of the internet’s 31st “birthday” to bring attention to how women are maligned and mistreated online. Not only through harassment and abuse, but also by limited access due to a lack of equipment or knowledge. In Australia a 2018 Amnesty Internationalfound that 30% of Australian women had been harassed online, with 37% of those reporting the threats made them feel physically unsafe. Crucially, 38% of survey respondents said they felt the government responses to harassment were “inadequate”. During this crisis, it is essential we acknowledge that women are more likely to feel isolated while working and living the vast majority of their days at home, especially with the additional burdens of childcare and other domestic labour, which usually fall to women.

This week, on Monday 6 April, Melbourne-based writer and academic Ellena Savage had planned to launch her debut book, Blueberries, via Zoom to an international audience. Unfortunately, the event was interrupted by a collection of “porny hackers” who derailed the online event and caused it to be cut short. This kind of harassment is only increasing as we turn to web-based meeting platforms like Zoom to continue our work in isolation. “Zoom-bombing” typically involves hackers randomly entering numbers to find open Zoom sessions, sharing their screens with the audience, often showing pornography. These kinds of attacks are clearly gendered, with women often bearing the brunt. In response, Zoom has now implemented passwords and “waiting rooms” on all meetings, which can limit accessibility to those with a direct link or who know the password.

Now more than ever we are turning to our online networks for the most up to date news, updates and community support. Online environments, especially social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tik Tok are rife with examples of misinformation and gendered or racist harassment. There has been a serious lack of leadership from online platforms to address these issues – amongst all the emails from various service providers about how they plan to support their communities, social media have been conspicuously silent.

Instead it is the responsibility of individual citizens to try and do what they can to filter the information they see amid an escalating pandemic. The Office of the eSafety Commissioner has compiled an article about how to stay safe online during the pandemic, including self-care and caring for children during social distancing, isolation and working from home. These suggestions are very useful, but they do not go far enough in regulating the online environment to ensure women can fully participate.

It is important to think of online harassment as being both direct and indirect. Direct harassment includes the targeting of individuals through comments and messages, in which someone is abused on the basis of their gender identity or other personal characteristics. Indirect harassment includes the kinds of vicarious trauma that everyday internet users experience when they witness other people being harassed.

Indirect harassment can be just as traumatic as direct harassment, and Gender Equity Victoria (GEN VIC) has produced a social media toolkit and two short videos on how to be an active bystander on social media. By considering the indirect effects of harassment, we can see how online harassment becomes a community problem and needs comprehensive commitment to its prevention. Two ways we might approach preventing and mitigating the effects of direct and indirect harassment are by governments holding platforms to account, and by workplaces doing more to support women journalists and consequently their audiences.

First, platforms need to be held to much greater account when moderating the content posted. This could be through the proposed Online Safety Act, which would expand the role of the Office of the eSafety Commissioner to include imposing consequences on social media platforms for not removing content that is deemed harmful. Measures like these would see platforms being held accountable for the editorial and moderation decisions they have been making for years, which then have serious and harmful consequences for individuals and communities.

It would enable governments to limit the power of organisations like Facebook in manipulating the public, spreading misinformation and allowing harassment to happen freely. Instead there would be more oversight from the Commissioner in demanding the removal of content and imposing fines and other deterrents if the company refused to comply.

Second, community organisations like Gender Equity Victoria (GEN VIC) and the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) need to work together with the Australian media industry to directly target and prevent harassment. GEN VIC and the MEAA are currently working on moderation guidelines to be implemented across the media sector in Australia. These guidelines have a specifically gendered lens and are being designed to work alongside organisations’ own guidelines (where applicable) so that the moderation of online comments sections are safer for women.

GEN VIC are also in the process of developing and trialling a short comprehension quiz that will ask commenters to answer three short questions before posting a comment. These initiatives are being undertaken after GEN VIC released a report last year investigating the impact of online harassment on women journalists. The report found that media workplaces are not supportive enough of women journalists and that much more needs to be done, including greater moderation of comments sections and the introduction of health and wellbeing initiatives to help workers when they are being harassed. These measures are currently being developed by GEN VIC and the MEAA and more details will be announced later in the year.

While these two approaches are being investigated, it is important that online safety for women remains a priority for everyone now that so much more time is being spent online. There is support available for those experiencing harassment. For those experiencing harassment directly you can make a report of serious abuse and harassment at the Office of the eSafety Commissioner. If the harassment is not considered “serious abuse”, support is still available through friends, family and workplaces. We are all in this together, and now more than ever we need to ensure the safety of women online in order to prevent unnecessary trauma now and into the future.

Caitlin McGrane and I lead Gender Equity Victoria’s ‘Enhancing Online Safety for Women’ project.

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