Online Harm to Women: A Worse Online Environment

Online Harm

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It is alarming how frequently hate speech against women is posted online. According to recent research conducted by THE ECONOMIST INTELLIGENCE UNIT (2021), women globally experience online violence at an alarming rate of 85%, with younger women being more vulnerable to personal experiences of such violence. The prevalence of different types of threatening tactics is also quite high, with hate speech at 65%, online harassment at 66%, misinformation and slander at 67%, and threats of violence at 52%. These figures clearly show that women are more likely to suffer harm online. The experience of such harmful behavior may result in the emergence of mental health conditions like depression or anxiety. There is a reasonable concern that online harm might exacerbate already-existing inequities, injure women, or maybe even lead to real-life violence because it can have serious negative effects on women’s mental and physical health. Therefore, it is crucial to address online harms against women to ensure their safety and well-being.

source from: The economist

Forms of online harm

(1) Online hate speech

With instances like the historical persistence of anti-Semitic hate speech, hate speech has been an ongoing issue for a considerable amount of time. Notably, the severity of anti-Jewish prejudice varies by geographical area, with serious cases frequently appearing in Europe. Some people in the United States have prejudices and misconceptions about Jews and regard them as inferior (Victoria Saker Woeste, 2012). As society has developed, the target groups of hate speech have continued to expand, with individuals or groups targeted based on factors such as race, religion, gender, disabilities, sexual orientation, and more (Brown, 2017).  It can be concluded that most of the targets of hate speech are vulnerable groups protected by law. Brown (2017) identifies two types of hate speech: the manner of speech or the likelihood of causing contingent harm like violence or discrimination. However, this is just one way of thinking about how to distinguish hate speech. Due to the development of information access methods brought on by the internet, the issue of hate speech has gained increasing attention. The user experience has been greatly impacted by the globalization of hate speech on the internet. There are many different varieties of hate speech on the internet, and encountering it can have negative effects that frequently result in group conflicts, physical attacks, and other types of harm. Online hate speech is a troubling experience for many people, especially women. From Richardson-Self (2018), it can be determined that

“We know that groups are oppressed in the first instance, and that individuals are oppressed only insofar as they are group members, but we have also learned that hate speech attacks not only individuals as members of groups, but also subsets of those groups (for example “feminists,” “sluts,” and so on) in order to keep the entire group down.” (p.268)

Online hate speech can transcend geographical boundaries and reach a broader demographic. Consequently, if audiences receive online hate speech targeting women, they may absorb and further spread it, resulting in the expansion of the scope of hate speech against women and an increase in the number of female victims affected by such hate speech.

(2) Online harassment

Online harassment, which involves threatening or harassing behavior through online platforms, is a serious issue that particularly affects women, causing them anxiety and distress. According to the study (Chadha et al., 2020), despite the fact that women have taken certain preventative measures to avoid online harassment, it still happens, particularly when they use social media. On various platforms, women frequently get derogatory private messages. It’s possible that a woman will experience online harassment from strangers after sharing something briefly on a social media platform. One type of internet abuse that some women encounter is cyberstalking. Online stalking involves sending threatening messages to victims via email or social media platforms, making them feel anxious, frightened, and other negative emotions. Internet platforms have transformed into one of the strategies utilized by stalkers as a result of the development of the internet. The convenience of stalkers’ online anonymity has led to a surge in online stalking (Pittaro, 2007). From the report (Tjaden & Thoennes, 1998), we can know that

“Based on U.S. Census estimates of the number of women and men in the country, one out of every 12 U.S. women (8.2 million) has been stalked at some time in her life, and one out of every 45 U.S. men (2 million) has been stalked at some time in his life. The survey also found that 1 percent of all women surveyed and 0.4 percent of all men surveyed were stalked during the 12 months preceding the survey.” (p.3)

It is easy to draw the conclusion that more women are the targets of online stalking. Although internet stalking presents a threat to women’s personal safety, unlike physical stalking, it is more difficult to identify and comprehend the motivations of cyber stalkers due to the anonymity of the Internet. Asking the police for information about stalking in the physical world will help victims feel less afraid, but online stalking has fewer details and is subject to varied platform policies, making it challenging to develop standard regulations to protect victims. The network also covers a large area, so one country’s rules could not be applicable. in another.

(3) Online sexual violence

According to Zhong et al. (2020), technology-facilitated sexual violence (TFSV) usually includes: “(1) online sexual harassment, (2) image-based sexual exploitation, (3) cyberstalking, (4) gender- and sexuality-based harassment, and (5) sexual assault and/or coercion (also known as technology-facilitated unwanted sexual experiences).” Among these, sexual assault and/or coercion against women is a common occurrence, as does image-based sexual exploitation. Image-based sexual exploitation, also known as revenge pornography, includes posting private images or videos online without permission, always in order to make the victim feel uncomfortable. This can have a negative impact on the victim’s relationships, reputation, and psychological well-being. Sexual coercion facilitated via the Internet essentially constitutes three forms of behavior: (1) sexual coercion, or “sextortion.” (2) use of digital technology to commit a contact crime; and (3) use of technology to amplify the harm of sexual assault (Powell & Henry, 2016). Women have suffered physical and psychological injury as a result of these behaviors. Additionally, this is a sustained injury rather than a one-time occurrence. For victims, the psychological shadow they suffer may not decrease with age. Online sexual violence stems from the attitudes of gender and sexual behavior in real society and the motives of the perpetrators. Digital technology is only a tool for its use. For traditional sexual violence, the impact and consequences of online sexual violence depend on the coverage of the Internet (Henry & Powell, 2016).

source from: Legal Briefings

Online harm on celebrity

Female celebrities are more vulnerable to online victimization compared to ordinary women due to their massive influence and large audience. Celebrities have a significant number of followers on social media, making them more susceptible to online attacks by their anti-fans, who often distort facts, spread rumors, and use insulting language. The case of Lena Dunham visually shows online harm. She posted a post-surgery photo on October 17, 2018, which drew offensive language. According to Ghaffari (2020), “The major thematic referential construction of the hate within these comments is through criticizing Lena for not maintaining their appearance in accordance to (neoliberal) cultural expectations regarding femininity and body self-maintenance.” Online comments are actually reactions in reality, and these reactions can become more extreme due to the anonymous nature of the Internet. Comments about Lena Dunham’s body can cause emotional harm to the person concerned, but the person who posted the comment would not be aware of it. Emojis and jokes are examples of “soft hate speech,” which is less harmful than outright abuse but nevertheless destructive to the group or person being attacked (Ghaffari, 2020). Common forms of soft hate speech include “Why do you have a boyfriend? :(“. Whatever form they use, they all boil down to internet hate speech that has harmed the parties concerned.

emoji, source from emojipedia

The number of online harms experienced by political actors has increased as a result of the expansion of the Internet and the introduction of numerous social media platforms. Politicians not only in one region but also in several contexts around the world are impacted by this phenomenon. Internet users are no longer restricted to their immediate surroundings due to the Internet, which has expanded their access to information. A number of the hostile comments and actions taken against female political actors have revealed numerous issues with online harm in today’s society. They believe it is “immoral” for females to participate in politics or show an interest in it, which is the root of their hostility toward female political actors. Donald J. Trump attributes Hillary Clinton’s achievements to the fact that she is a woman (Chozick & Parker, 2016). For female political actors, they will be more easily questioned in terms of morality, character, ability, and achievements. Because female politicians are “heterogeneous” in the political sphere, many people’s perceptions of the social structure in which men hold power are challenged (Holton et al., 2021). The online harm suffered by women political actors often manifests itself in the form of questioning their morality through online rumors; questioning their competence through altered interview videos to distort facts (Holton et al., 2021); questioning their achievements through symbolic violence (Krook & Restrepo Sanín, 2019). During the election period in Japan, many female politicians faced abuse on Twitter on a daily basis. In the case of Japan, we can see some forms of online harm, online harassment: “you are the one who should get married soon” (Fuchs & SchÄfer, 2020); online hate speech: “a society where women shine makes me puke” (Fuchs & SchÄfer, 2020), these online harms create extreme Internet atmosphere. The constant rhetorical attacks can create negative emotions among women politicians and even lead them to abandon their political careers. This shows how online harm has personal, social, and political consequences.

Ways to address online harm

(1) Technology

Some platforms use AI to filter out unfriendly information. For example, in China, several common ways to filter information are website blocking, sensitive word filtering, and content filtering (Xu, 2014). AI review is the first step in screening information, and the difficult part will be handed over to manual review, which is the second step in information screening. When these two steps are complete, the information can be published. From the perspective of network harm, this method can effectively prevent However, it is difficult to balance the relationship between free speech and harmful information causing harm online.

(2) Education

From the document of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (1974), it is believed that education is guided by human rights and freedom, which can promote mutual understanding between people and further create a harmonious world. Human rights education can promote Internet users’ understanding of cultural diversity, thereby maintaining respect for different countries, minorities, and religious beliefs and reducing online hate speech. Therefore, it is very important to strengthen human rights education, which can reduce the possibility of online harm at its root. Education can help online users raise awareness and promote responsible online behavior by understanding the risks and consequences of online harm.

(3) Law

According to Kettemann (2020), we can know that “the normative order of the internet contains national legal rules, international legal rules, and transnational normative arrangements.” Different countries have different laws and regulations regarding internet regulation, which can prevent online harm to a certain extent. However, in such a large “community” around the world, the laws within countries do not apply. This requires the regulation of the Internet through international law. At present, there is no clear convention system to effectively prevent online harm. International law is essential to maintaining a harmonious, equal, open, and stable Internet environment. Between freedom of expression and human rights, the law plays a balancing role.


This blog examines the problem of online harm against women. We discuss the forms of online harm, online harm in female celebrities, and ways to address online harm. It is clear that online harm against women has serious consequences for individuals and society as a whole. The mental impact can be devastating and can lead to physical injury, disruption of relationships, and limitations in professional development. Online abuse of women also feeds a larger sexism and misogyny culture, which is harmful to gender equality and the well-being of women and girls. In order to effectively address hurt against women online, awareness of the problem and its implications must be elevated. Social media platforms require more decisive action to address this problem, including tightening up regulations and enhancing reporting and enforcement procedures. People must actively combat online harm against women and speak out for unfriendly behavior. To stop online harm and give victims help and services, governments and law enforcement should create and enforce laws and regulations.

Overall, addressing online harm against women requires multifaceted collaboration. Working together can create a safer, more inclusive online environment for all.

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