Tuesday 8 February is Safer Internet Day and this year the theme is about respect and relationships online.
Women are twenty-seven times more likely to be abused online than men. To mark Safer Internet Day, Bishop Simon writes about how we - and men in particular - need to not remain silent about the abuse of women online.
The word made vile
Caroline Criado Perez is an author and activist who once criticised the removal of the only woman other than the Queen to feature on a bank note. In a meeting room, it would likely have received murmurs of approval. Online, it provoked such an onslaught that over just one weekend, the police gathered enough rape and death threats against her to fill 300 pages of A4.
In 2006, researchers at the University of Maryland set up a series of fictitious internet accounts to see how the public responded to them. Those with feminine usernames received a daily average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages; masculine usernames received less than 4.
Vile abuse on social media is not evenly distributed between men and women; it’s not even close. Women are twenty-seven times more likely to be abused online than men.
There is something profoundly disturbing about what is happening to women online. And it is becoming normalised, as if it is part of the fabric of the internet; some kind of toxic tax women must pay if they want to be heard. In these still early days of the internet, we seem to be at a loss to know how to deal effectively with the problem.
The old adage sticks and stones is a vain attempt at a defence against the power of words. In reality, people are deeply wounded by what is said about them. And everyone, now, has global reach with what they put in print.
Influential women are especially prone to abuse. The goal is all too clear: women should know their place, and that place is not to have a voice in public. We sit in judgement of cultures in some parts of the world that deny women agency while people here in the UK are trying to do just the same, and in the most punitive and terrifying of terms. It’s not just well-known or well-positioned women who face this threat: any girl or woman putting her views or her interests or her aspirations out there is a target if they come to the wrong attention.
Of special concern is the emerging culture where men groom teenage boys online via platforms like YouTube, Instagram and chatrooms like 4chan to believe that women are taking their futures away from them. It’s a new and unexpected form of radicalisation that has yet to receive the attention it deserves.
February 8 is Safer Internet Day and in 2022, the focus is on respect and relationships online.
These early decades of the internet still feel a bit like some digital wild west, with fortunes to be had and violence to be done. We need to establish safe norms, practices, laws and customs. What we can’t do is allow the bullies to rule the playground and intimidate women into submission. That will take sustained partnerships between governments and the tech industry. And it also asks the public to take a stand.
Most of us would never entertain the online abuse of women, but we sometimes remain silent about it. Perhaps that is a reflection we all need to make, especially men, from whom the abuse usually emanates.
The Bible says Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12: 21). To resist evil requires a degree of courage, because it comes at those who oppose it, something clearly seen online. But we also resist it by lavishing attention on its victims. Abused people feel profoundly isolated. Just a word of encouragement, a listening ear, a practical action, are a reminder of the loving kindness of the God whose word sets free.
Simon Burton Jones
Bishop of Tonbridge