* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
It's time for social media platforms to step up and take this abuse and harassment seriously
By Nadiuska, 19, an activist for girls’ rights and gender equality with Plan International
Feminazi. I wish you were dead. Go home or I’ll beat you up. These are just a few of the comments I’ve had to endure, simply for posting my views on social media. You’re probably shocked, but not really surprised. Harassment, especially of girls and young women, has become so widespread that it’s becoming accepted as a normal part of being online.
As an activist for girls’ rights in Nicaragua, Facebook and Twitter are so important to help me connect with like-minded young people. I belong to groups where we discuss gender-based violence, including online abuse, and how it can be tackled. It’s a space where we can come together to make change. But it doesn’t always feel safe. I’ve dealt with upsetting and frightening comments many times, and so have women who are close to me. These range from death threats to having intimate personal information spread.
According to a new study by girls’ rights organisation Plan international, we are far from alone. The landmark global survey, involving 14,000 girls and young women in 22 countries, found that more than half (58%) have experienced abuse and harassment on social media, including girls as young as eight.
Too often, we are left to deal with harassers by ourselves. For me, this has taken a profound toll on my mental health. I had to go to therapy. I had to take medication to feel calm, and on a number of occasions, I even had to be sedated. I had rage and anger, and felt impotent. The global COVID-19 pandemic has made the situation worse. I rely on online networks to stay connected with friends and fellow activists, as it’s harder to meet in person with friends. But this means the harassment has intensified, and it feels all the more scary when you are alone.
Online violence is real, and has made me feel physically unsafe too. One time, I joined an environmental march in Spain, where there was a collective of Central American feminist women. I then got a xenophobic message from a profile telling me to return to my country with dirty words. They said that I should not be participating in marches that were not mine and that they had ways of deporting me, and that they could have me beaten. I was afraid, because out of the thousands of people who were there, how did they know who I was and that I was there?
Over the years, I’ve learned how to protect myself better. I now take care who I interact with. I try not to share personal information and am careful about what I post. I don’t engage with people I don’t know and if I see a weird account, I ignore it. But girls shouldn’t have to take it upon themselves to protect themselves. Social media companies need to do more too. I’ve tried reporting cases, but no one has ever been sanctioned.
A common problem is that abuse isn’t taken seriously unless many people report it, and harassers can just make new accounts. This isn’t good enough – platforms need to restrict accounts that publicly harass other people and post harmful content. They could also launch campaigns to educate people about the importance of girls being safe online.
I know that if social media companies took the time to speak to girls and young women, and understand the reality of what we experience, we can together come up with tools that will make us feel safe. That’s why I’ve joined girls around the world in signing an open letter to Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter, urging them to create stronger and more effective ways to report harassment. This, in my opinion, is the first step towards making social media a place where girls are free to express themselves and shape the world around them without fear.