In Australia, 65 per cent of girls and young women surveyed had been exposed to online harassment (compared to the global figure of 58 per cent), with abusive language, body-shaming, stalking and purposeful harassment the most prevalent forms.
One of Ash’s Facebook friends – she still doesn’t know who – had taken photos from her real profile and re-posted them in the hoax account.
“I didn’t know who was taking my stuff and posting it. I upped my privacy settings, but I couldn’t delete everyone – some of them were my friends. I didn’t know who to trust.”
Ash says she repeatedly reported the fake profile to Facebook, saying someone was imitating her. “It didn’t get taken down, it just didn’t,” Ash says. “I don’t know why.”
“I would come home and there would be posts written about me that were very vulgar and very upsetting. Once there was a collage of my ex-boyfriend and different girls he’d been with, saying I was the sluttiest.”
Some days she worried more about what was going to be posted about her on social media than her year 12 exams. “I deleted social media for a bit before exams but then someone would text me saying ‘Oh my God, they’ve posted something about you’. Curiosity kills the cat. I would want to see what was said about me, and it was never anything good. It definitely over the years messed up my self-esteem and body image.”
Forty-four per cent of the Australian girls surveyed experienced harassment on Facebook, 35 per cent on Instagram and 24 per cent on Snapchat.
When asked who was perpetrating the violence, 40 per cent said people from school or work, 29 per cent said a friend and 16 per cent said a former partner. More than one-third said they had been harassed by anonymous social media users.
While this research was conducted before the coronavirus pandemic, National eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant recently said online abuse had skyrocketed during the pandemic and digital platforms had lost control of what happened on their sites.
The commission reported an 87 per cent jump in cyber bullying among young people.
Instagram programs manager Kira Wong O’Connor said keeping women safe on their apps was critical.
“We invest billions in staff and technology to keep abuse off our platforms and work with more than 200 safety organisations globally to help protect women from online harassment, offensive comments and unwanted attention,” Ms Wong O’Connor said.
“Over the past few years, we’ve partnered with Plan International on workshops for young women to safely share their experience online. This, together with Plan International’s research helps us deepen our understanding of these important societal issues and how we can best solve them.”
A Twitter spokesperson said gender-based abuse, harassment and hateful conduct had no place on Twitter.
“Today, more than 50 per cent of abusive content that we take action on is identified proactively using technology, instead of relying on reports from people using Twitter,” the spokesperson said.
“Every day we are focused on trying to do a better job at combating abuse, especially targeting protected groups, and we recognise that there is always room for improvement.”
Plan International Australia CEO Susanne Legena said 35 per cent of the Australian women and girls surveyed reported their harasser to the social media platform.
She said experiences such as Ash’s were common, with social media platforms not taking down fake accounts or saying offensive comments did not breach community standards.
Women and girls facing abuse on social media
- 65 per cent of Australian girls experienced some form of online harassment on social media
- Most started to experience harassment between ages 12 and 16
- 44 per cent experienced harassment on Facebook, 35 per cent on Instagram and 24 per cent on Snapchat
- 40 per cent harassed by people from work or school, 29 per cent from a friend, 16 per by former partner
- 38 per cent harassed by anonymous social media user
- Most common harassment – abusive language, body shaming, stalking and purposeful harassment
- 35 per cent reported their harasser to the social media platform
- Source: Plan International
Young women who spoke to Plan International are on Monday launching an open letter calling on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and Twitter to work with them to create stronger reporting mechanisms.
“There are mechanisms on every platform to report abuse and harassment and indeed many of these social media giants have made vast improvements recently, but the reality is abuse is endemic. It is thriving under COVID-19 lockdowns,” Ms Legena said.
“Girls tell us that when they report, often clearly quite horrific content is inexplicably deemed as acceptable and even when their attackers are banned, they’re back at it days later. The system is broken and something needs to change.”
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Jewel Topsfield is a senior reporter at The Age. She has worked in Melbourne, Canberra and Jakarta as Indonesia correspondent. She has won multiple awards including a Walkley and the Lowy Institute Media Award.