Anti-Bullying Week 2019: Seyi Akiwowo on ending online abuse and being good digital citizens

The founder and executive director of Glitch, a not-for-profit organisation designed to stop online harassment, shares her own traumatic experiences of trolling and how we can make social media safer for all

‘I write this as a campaigner for a safer internet for all and a survivor of horrendous online abuse in 2017, although as most survivors will tell you it never stops. If you’re a black woman or any beautiful embodiment ofintersecting forms of identities living your best life with enormous pride and expression – then you’re the perfect prey for racist, sexist trolls. What most survivors will also tell you is that they couldn’t have made it through their experience of online abuse – whether it was trolling, hacking, defamation, misogynoir,  gender-based slurs, ‘revenge porn’ or deadnaming – without the small kindness of strangers and their loved ones. When I went through my horrific experience it was online bystanders that encouraged me to fight back and to start Glitch. Reporting the abuse on the platform, sending encouraging messages and gifts, distracting me away from my phone, those small online bystander interventions were antibodies to the toxic abuse.

‘The Change Starts With Us’ is the theme for this 2019’s Anti-Bullying Week. With 66% of the UK population on social media and with four in ten people revealing they experienced online abuse last year it’s both an important and timely reminder, especially online. The internet, Instagram, Twitter and new players such as TikTok have become extensions of our offline public spaces; adopting all the beauty of human interactions, creativity and expression as well as all the ugly. However, unlike our offline space where we have the rule of law, social norms and where we know how to respond to emergencies, such as a woman being harassed on the tube, we have yet to go through this process properly online. With technological innovations encouraging more anonymity, harvesting data and content disappearing within 24 hours we’re in real danger of not understanding our responsibility with our digital footprint and actions.

Seyi Akiwowo

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 Online hate speech should be treated the same as if it was verbalised outside a shopping centre. We should treat others online the way we would like to be treated, when someone is in life-threatening danger, our instant reaction is usually to call 999, but we can’t do that in our online spaces. Facebook for example, has 2.38 billion monthly active users, yet it has no democratically elected governance structure and no emergency services.  And with so few under-resourced support services for victims of online abuse around the world, it is even more important for us to be that support for each other online.

 I am certainly by no means abdicating governments or billion-dollar private social media companies from their responsibilities to us. Alongside their interventions, I encourage everyone to demonstrate digital citizenship on their own platforms. Digital citizenship is all about our digital rights as well as our digital responsibilities – more so if you’ve cultivated a large platform. Just like offline, we cannot sit back and watch online bullying and trolling escalate on our timeline or in our very own comment section, all because of engagement, entertainment or falling for the myth that ‘it’s not real’.  First, there is no ‘real world’ versus the ‘online world’. The online world is very much real with consequences, from earning significant amount of money and sponsorship deals right through to censoring and increase death by suicide rates linked to social media. Amnesty International’s survey highlighted the psychological trauma of online abuse: 61% of those who said they’d experienced online abuse or harassment said they’d experienced lower self-esteem or loss of self-confidence as a result and 55% said they had experienced stress, anxiety or panic attacks after experiencing online abuse or harassment.

It is time to start a conversation on how we can be online active bystanders and be digital citizens we want to see more of. This includes, not using our platforms to sell dangerous myths or products to young girls, being critical thinkers and fact checking content before sharing, particularly during this year’s very intense general election, and reporting abuse to the social media platforms. The online space can only be a positive social good if we reflect on our own behaviours as digital citizens and set a zero tolerance to online abuse.’

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