Faye Raincock, head of communications at global media agency Havas UK, shares compelling research on the harassment of women online. On this SHE Innovates episode, she speaks with Michelle King, a leader in UN women’s gender innovation work, about the perpetrators, impact on victims, and how to support women on social media.
The scale of online harassment
In her research, which took place over six months, Raincock found more than six and a half million tweets involving abuse, or “over 200 abusive tweets to each woman every single day.” These tweets included things such as gender-specific slurs and threats of sexual violence. While Raincock expected to find that most of these were sent by men, her research showed that an equal number were sent by women.
Raincock defines five “power groups” of women who are frequented targeted online: global leaders, politicians, broadcasters, athletes, and entertainers. The most common type of sexual harassment is body objectification. Entertainers are especially prone to this because they usually have high-traffic social media channels. Artists like Taylor Swift are accused of using their body to “ply their trade,” which is perhaps not surprising, but online harassment is regularly directed at figures like Oprah Winfrey and Emma Watson as well. Too often, there’s a sense within society that we can “explain away” sexual harassment.
Part of Raincock’s research focused on how women are represented in media—for example, she cites the magazine cover that featured a picture of Theresa May and the leader of the Scottish party, accompanied by a headline about their legs. Raincock calls on the media to take responsibility for how it represents women: “It’s not just the obvious glaring examples, but a more low-level, pervasive, and repetitive representation of women as objects of desire to be commented on — that makes it OK for society to constantly judge women on the way they look rather than their ability or intellect.”
Raincock notes, “We seem a length removed from these women on social media, but it’s much closer to home than that.” In fact, she adds, “The underlying misogyny and willingness to accept sexism is fundamental to our lives. It comes through in every conversation we have.”
How to support women online
Raincock and her associates looked at how different women dealt with online harassment and determined that there is no single “right” way to combat the problem. But even sending a direct message of support to a person who’s being abused can help. Some abusers are motivated by “social capital” – they tweet to celebrities, hoping that the conversation will gain traction and boost their own account. We need to call this out when we can. Also, before you tweet, stop and think about your message. “It’s not just about women, it’s about how we treat other human beings online,” Raincock points out.
On an industry level, media organizations have a responsibility to help combat sexual harassment by no longer accepting objectification and abuse as permissible. They have a platform to change behavior if they choose to. Technology companies should stop focusing on mitigating damages and start addressing the problems. They have the power to create blocks, filters, and other ways to protect victims of online abuse.
If you are in a position to influence young people, Raincock advises, teach them that kindness isn’t just face-to-face. The younger generations are experiencing the world through a different filter, Raincock says, and she “would like to see all of us talking to young people about how we conduct ourselves in every medium.”
She adds, “Our greatest gift for the next generations is for them to understand kindness can apply off or online.”
Listen to Faye Raincock’s interview on the SHE Innovates podcast.
SHE Innovates is a podcast that shares the stories, challenges, and triumphs of women in innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship. Listen to all our podcasts on PodBean.