Refuge launches ‘Unsocial spaces’ – a report on the online abuse of women

 
On International Internet Day, Refuge launches ‘Unsocial spaces’ – a report on the online abuse of women and says social media companies, and other online platforms, are ‘failing to protect women and girls from abuse.’
  • Report calls on the government to explicitly include Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) in the Online Safety Bill to compel platforms to act.
  • More than one in three UK women (36%) have experienced online abuse on social media or another online platform. This is equivalent to 11 million women across the UK.
  • 1 in 6 of these women experienced this abuse from a partner or ex-partner, equivalent to almost 2 million women in the UK.
  • Online abuse is twice as common among young women, with 62% experiencing online abuse.
    95% said the abuse had an impact on their mental health or impacted them in other life-debilitating ways – for example by affecting their income.
  • 1 in 10 survivors said they felt suicidal as a result of the abuse.
  • Women are seven times more likely to experience sexual harassment on social media than men.
  • Government can better regulate social media companies via the Online Safety Bill – but it must ensure Violence Against Women and Girls is central to this Bill.
  • Members of the public can get involved with the campaign here.

Refuge, the country’s largest single provider of specialist domestic abuse services, has today launched its ‘Unsocial Spaces’ report and campaign, which calls for greater scrutiny and regulation of social media, and other online platforms, to ensure they better protect women and girls from online abuse. Refuge is calling on the government to ensure the Online Safety Bill is as strong as it has the potential to be and that it includes Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) as a priority. Research carried out by Refuge has found that more than one in three women have experienced online abuse on social media or another online platform.

The draft Bill, which is currently in its ‘scrutiny’ stage, does not contain any references to VAWG, which is a glaring omission, particularly given the government’s own purported commitment to prioritising tackling violence against women and girls in the ‘Tackling VAWG’ strategy, and as one of their priorities as chair of the G7. Refuge hopes that the Bill’s scrutiny committee will provide comprehensive feedback to the government, based on our research, and ensure the draft Bill is significantly strengthened.

Tech abuse is a growing form of domestic abuse; Refuge is the only frontline organisation with a specialist tech abuse service and has identified significant failings by social media companies in dealing with online abuse of women and girls. The rise of social media has helped many of us stay connected with our loved ones and participate in public debate, particularly given the ongoing pandemic, but online abuse is a major part of online life for women and girls, and social media companies are currently not doing enough to deal with this growing problem and how their platforms facilitate and exacerbate online VAWG.

The solution must not be for women to come offline, as is too often the case currently; instead, social media companies need to ensure they are protecting women and girls and ensuring they can access online spaces safely.

Refuge’s specialist tech team works with women every day who are experiencing abuse via technology. Domestic abuse perpetrated on social media features in 35% of issues reported to the tech abuse team. Tech abuse rarely occurs in isolation, frequently occurring alongside other forms of abuse. According to our survey, 94% of female survivors experience other forms of domestic abuse alongside the abuse they receive on social media.

In order to better understand this growing form of abuse Refuge commissioned a representative survey of 2,264 UK adults. The results paint a concerning picture about the prevalence of online abuse as well as wholesale inadequacies in the way social media companies respond to it, leaving women feeling unsupported and in distress.

It is clear that much more needs to be done not only to protect women and girls but also to hold perpetrators to account. The survey found that more than one in three women in the UK has experienced online abuse (equivalent to 11 million women across the UK), rising to almost two in three (62%) amongst young women (aged 18-34). 1 in 6 of these women experienced this abuse from a partner or ex-partner, making abuse on social media a clear domestic abuse issue, and one which Refuge is uniquely qualified to address and advise on.

Topline results from the survey (full report is here)
  • More than one in three UK women (36%) have experienced online abuse on social media or another online platform. This is equivalent to 11 million women across the UK.
  • Of these women, 1 in 6 experienced this abuse from a partner or ex-partner. This means that almost 2 million women in the UK have faced online abuse from a partner or ex-partner.
  • Online abuse is twice as common among young women, with 62% experiencing online abuse.
  • The effects on survivors are serious; 1 in 10 survivors told us they felt suicidal as a result of the abuse.
  • 38% of women who experienced abuse on social media from a partner or former partner said they felt unsafe or less confident online as a result.
  • 95% said the abuse had an impact on their mental health or impacted them in other life-debilitating ways – for example by affecting their income.
Ruth Davison, Refuge CEO said:

“The rise in tech abuse is a problem which Refuge has been leading the fight against. Our specialist tech abuse team are supporting large numbers of women every day who have experienced this form of abuse. What our survey data shows is the staggering scale of abuse against women on social media and the failure of social media companies to act accordingly to protect women and girls. From our experience supporting survivors, we know that platforms are failing survivors, frequently leaving their reports unanswered for weeks, if not months, with very little, if any, action taken. With so much of our lives lived online, particularly during the pandemic, it is vital that social media companies are both taking steps to tackle and prevent online abuse of women and girls, including survivors of domestic abuse, and to understand the devastating impact it has.

The government has a unique opportunity, via the Online Safety Bill, to protect women and girls, by better regulating social media companies and requiring them to put policies and practices in place to provide the support and protection women deserve. But right now, the draft Bill doesn’t contain a single reference to VAWG, which is a glaring omission. When the Bill scrutiny committee reports back to the Government later this year, we hope that they will insist on VAWG being central to this Bill, encouraging the government to use this opportunity to take concrete action against VAWG, and make good on their commitments to prioritise this insidious crime.”

Amy Aldworth, survivor of tech abuse, said:

“I was stalked and harassed on social media by a man I met on a dating app. Somehow he managed to find all of my social media accounts and even those of my friends and family. The messages just kept coming and no matter how many times I blocked him, he would manage to create new profiles and continue to harass me.

At first, the police didn’t take the situation seriously and it took me filing an official complaint for them to press charges. Just because abuse is happening online, it doesn’t mean that the effects of it aren’t serious. My anxiety and depression spiraled because of the abuse and I had to take time off work. I was terrified that he was behind every corner.

What made everything worse was not receiving a response from the dating app I used, after I had reported his abuse. For all I know, he could still be using the platform, free to abuse other women just like me. It’s not good enough. The government needs to ensure that these platforms are held accountable for the harm caused on them. Only through regulating online platforms can the government ensure that women like me are able to access justice and continue using these online spaces safely.”

Cecilia*, a survivor of tech abuse supported by Refuge, said:

‘One of the most devastating impacts of the tech abuse I experienced from my abusive ex-partner was being humiliated by him on social media. Even before I escaped him, my abuser was always posting things online. I never felt comfortable with how much he wanted to share. Then his abuse escalated and he began posting abusive messages about me on social media for all to see. He messaged everyone we knew with lies about me and even used community group chats and forums to tarnish my name. It was so humiliating. I lost friends and I lost my standing in the community. It affected my ability to provide a supportive, community environment for my child.

Social media platforms make it very difficult to report this type of abuse and I had very little faith in them to actually do anything about the abuse I was experiencing. When you’re experiencing domestic abuse, the last thing you want to do is fill out a form with only an “ABC” of options for what’s going on. It’s more complicated than that and not something that an algorithm can just figure out.
Social media platforms must provide more options for women like me and the government has an opportunity to ensure this happens. The government must also do more to raise awareness of how this type of abuse affects women, because I felt that there was a general lack of awareness within my community that what I was going through was actually tech abuse.”

*name has been changed

ENDS

Editors notes:

Full list of Refuge recommendations.
Recommendations – an action plan for change:
  1. All online platforms should be legally obliged to prioritise the prevention and investigation of tech abuse occurring on their platforms
  2. Statutory regulation of online platforms should explicitly reflect the harms and impact of tech abuse and other online violence against women and girls (VAWG)
  3. Online platforms should be obliged to cooperate with the police and with other platforms to pursue perpetrators of tech abuse
  4. Online platforms must consider how their products can be used to perpetrate tech abuse, and a responsibility placed on platforms to embed safety by design
  5. Online platforms should be regulated by a robust, independent regulator and regularly report on tech abuse taking place on their platforms
  6. Social media companies should invest in human moderation to support reporting and content moderation systems, and training and support which enables staff to respond effectively to tech abuse – domestic abuse is too nuanced and too dangerous to rely solely on artificial intelligence (AI) or algorithm responses
  7. Government should fund specialist violence against women and girls services which provide support to victims of tech abuse and other forms of online VAWG
  8. Training on tech abuse should be rolled out to the police, and the police must be allocated sufficient resources and technology to promptly investigate tech abuse
  9. Government and social media companies should invest in raising awareness of tech abuse and social media companies should routinely develop and promote safety guidance for users
About Refuge:

Refuge supports more than 7,000 women and children on any given day, and runs the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, which is the gateway to accessing specialist support across the country. More than one in four women in England and Wales experiences domestic abuse at some point in their lifetime, and two women a week are killed by a current or former partner.

Please signpost to Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline 0808 2000 247, available 24 hours a day 7 days a week for free, confidential specialist support. Or visit www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk to fill in a webform and request a safe time to be contacted or to access live chat (live chat available 3pm-10pm, Monday to Friday). For support with tech abuse visit refugetechsafety.org

Interviews available with Refuge spokespeople and survivors on request. Please contact the press office on 0207 395 7731 or email press@refuge.org.uk