For many, social media has become an essential part of everyday life providing unprecedented opportunities for interaction, engagement, and information. It is also, however, a breeding ground for online violence targeting young women. For the girls targeted these everyday spaces become inaccessible and unsafe. Plan International, an NGO promoting equality for girls, recently published a report on the issue where it presents evidence that social media can be seen as the new frontier for gendered violence. The Covid-19 crisis has led to a rapid escalation of this abuse, as large parts of the world’s population has been put under lockdown, increasing their use of social media. The current legal measures that are in place to protect women online are insufficient. This can be seen in the case of the Swedish, so-called, Doomsday social media accounts from 2017, where over a hundred girls were publicly humiliated without anyone becoming convicted of any crime. Organizations such as Plan International and UN Women are therefore urging the international community and governments to act upon these issues and to enhance women’s online safety. 

The Swedish case of 2017’s Doomsday social media accounts 

In the end of 2017, Sweden experienced the biggest public humiliation of girls online in its history. Hundreds of girls all over the country experienced their explicit photos being published without their consent through so-called Doomsday accounts on Instagram and Snapchat. The aim of the accounts was to basically destroy the lives of these girls, hence the name.The posts would include the girl’s name, and oftentimes address and even school, along with negative comments and slutshaming. The victims were told to pay 2000 SEK in order for the accounts to take down their pictures. Hundreds of girls were left fearing rejection from their family and friends, feeling ashamed and exposed. 

Although the police handled over 100 cases, no one was ever convicted of any crime, due to lack of proof. The issue lay with the fact that Instagram pages were oftentimes taken down quickly, and the Snapchat photos disappeared after 24 hours, making it difficult for the police to act rapidly enough. New Doomsday accounts on Instagram and Snapchat posts would keep reappearing however. Another issue was that since Instagram is an American company, obtaining the required information would normally take the Swedish authorities two to three months. In the meantime, girls as young as 12 years old were victimized in the process. 

Today, the Doomsday accounts are no longer active in Sweden, but nonetheless girls all over the world continue to be exposed to online abuse and harassment each day, something that is being increasingly voiced within the international community. 

Social media apps on phone (Photo by: David Stewart, Flickr)

Key findings of the Free to Be Online Report 

The newly published report by Plan International, dubbed “Free to Be Online”, looks at 22 countries around the world, with 14,000 girls aged 15-25 being surveyed. More than half of the girls recount having been harassed and abused online, and one in four of them have felt physically unsafe as a result. Plan International argues that this leads to girls’ voices being silenced. 

The report further found that the most common type of violence was “abusive and insulting language, reported by more than half of the girls (59%), followed by deliberate embarrassment (41%), body shaming (39%) and threats of sexual violence (39%)”.

It also showed that the abuse primarily takes place on “Facebook, where 39% have suffered harassment, followed by Instagram (23%), WhatsApp (14%), Snapchat (10%), Twitter (9%) and TikTok (6%)”.

This abuse impacts the mental health of girls and their use of social media. Nearly 40% reported low self-esteem and 38% experienced that this had caused them mental and emotional stress. One in five (19%) of the girls who had been harassed online had either left or significantly reduced their use of social media. 

A 22 year old woman from Chile, interviewed in the survey, stated that “social media can be a really amazing place to, for example, speak out and share information…but also, it can be a horrible place where, I don’t know, crazy people can have an anonymous place to throw shade and hate”.

The impact of the Covid-19 crisis on social media 

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns, online spaces have become increasingly important, as it can be a lifeline for isolated young people, keeping them connected to the outside world. Key societal functions, such as education and work, have been moved online, and therefore it is more important than ever that girls can enjoy equal access to the opportunities provided by the internet and social media. By early April, more than half of the world’s population was under lockdown conditions, which has resulted in an increased internet usage of between 50% to 70%. In this context, UN Women argue that online- based violence “has spread under the shadow pandemic of violence against women”.

Two girls during Covid-19 pandemic (Photo by: Ricardo Huñis, Flickr)

What is currently being done, and what can be done? 

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women are the two human rights frameworks that provide protection to girls and women – safeguarding their basic rights and allowing for their participation in all aspects of life. These conventions were, however, written before the age of the internet. Although they are supposed to be applicable to most situations, the UN has recognized the need for human rights laws and policies specifically concerning girls’ and women’s rights and safety in digital spaces. 

Currently there are several services and strategies created to increase women’s online safety, and social media companies are making some adaptations. For instance, Instagram recently launched a Restrict tool which allows users to block accounts and manage comments. Another example is the Access Now Digital Security Helpline, a service which supports women at risk of online abuse or that are already under attack. Several organizations are also raising awareness through campaigns, such as Take Back the Tech! and #SheTransformsTech

However, Plan International and UN Women argue that governments must commit on a national level to enhance women’s online safety. In 2018, the UN special rapporteur on violence against women urged governments to implement new laws protecting women in digital spaces, based on rights to expression, privacy and freedom from violence. The European Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality further emphasizes that governments need to cooperate with other states when it comes to investigating and prosecuting perpetrators of online violence against women. 

What about freedom of speech?  

Finally, as countries enter or re-enter lockdown due to the continuous Covid-19 pandemic, the online violence against women and girls may escalate and continue to put many people at risk. This is why the international community is stressing the importance of this issue. However, freedom of speech tends to be quoted as an overriding consideration in terms of how social media platforms are regulated. Perpetrators who would offline be subject to laws can carry on with their abuse online, enjoying an empowering anonymity. Freedom is a complicated topic, but one has to ask whose rights are being prioritised and whose voices are silenced at the moment? This should be taken into consideration if we want to prevent a pandemic of online gendered violence in the midst of our already ongoing pandemic. 

Ellen Löfgren