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MUNROE 04

Read Munroe Bergdorf’s urgent open letter to online trolls

The model and activist argues that we have to battle the monster of misogyny and racism at the root of social media abuse

In the midst of the current conversations surrounding #MeToo and #TimesUp, the time has come to start taking online abuse seriously. Online abuse is abuse, period, with potentially life-ruining effects for those on the receiving end.

We are living in an era of turbulent numbness, where face-to-face communication has largely become a secondary method of voicing opinions and expressing feelings. Social media “likes” have been proven to activate positive receptors in our brains, exposing us to serial “highs” which can become addictive and unmaintainable. Our newsfeeds read like a constant stream of dystopian novel adaptations, teamed with constantly triggering clickbait headlines, purposely designed to market our fear, confusion, and anger into a profitable commodity for media outlets. 

This is an addictive and well-oiled invisible machine that has now become almost unavoidable, especially to younger generations who have no experience of a life before it. With the lines between what is reality, what is fake news, and what either of them truly even mean anymore, becoming increasingly indistinguishable, it is hard to identify the true belly of the beast. Who is responsible for this era of numbness? Social media platforms? Media outlets? Pop culture? It remains unclear. But what certainly is identifiable are the effects that is having on us as a society, both collectively and individually. We aren't just disagreeing on issues within society, or issues surrounding our identities – we're getting behind our keyboards and abusing each other at an alarmingly high rate, and it's women that are being targeted the most.

In August 2017, a survey conducted by Opinium for children's charity Plan International found that almost half of all girls in the UK aged 11-18 have experienced some form of abuse or harassment on social media. The study also found that 40% of boys within the same age bracket have experienced harassment online. In November 2017, Amnesty International UK found that one in five women aged 18-55 have experienced online abuse or harassment, with women also reporting psychological distress as a result of it. 27% had received direct or indirect threats of physical or sexual violence and 47% had experienced sexist or misogynistic abuse. This follows an inquiry, also carried out by Amnesty International UK, which found that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) women MPs, are almost eight times more likely to be abused online than white women MPs. With Diane Abbott, the UK's first black female MP, experiencing a harrowing 31.61% of ALL the abuse analysed in the inquiry. The charity disclosed, “the type of abuse she receives often focuses on her gender and race, and often includes threats of sexual violence”.

“The internet is serving as a playground where bigots feel free to be themselves and target those who they wish they could attack in real life”

With such alarming amounts of women and girls experiencing online abuse and harassment, why isn't more noise being made in rebuttal? Why isn't more being done to combat it? Furthermore, why aren't we looking into what is spurring these internet users to abuse others, largely based on their gender and/or race? We need to determine where this anger is coming from, and why. Could it be that the real issue is us underestimating our battle against misogyny and racism? The internet is serving as a playground where bigots feel free to be themselves and target those who they wish they could attack in real life, without facing real life consequences. Ultimately, it's abundantly clear that social media platforms are either avoiding addressing the scale of the problem, or they are unable to keep up with the sheer level of it.

Something very disturbing is happening with how we choose to interact with each other on a worldwide level. Certain discriminatory real-life actions from the past that were once legitimised by society have now gone underground, and re-manifested themselves in digital format. Digital witch hunts, digital lynch mobs. The fact that it's online is just the vessel that best fits the monster, but it's the monster that we should be battling. At the very least, social media platforms owe it to their users to seriously update their terms and conditions when it comes to identifying what constitutes as gender and racial violence. Better systems are needed to investigate complaints. Unbiased systems are needed. There is a big difference between using your freedom of speech, and abusing your freedom of speech. Social media platforms need to start making this crystal clear to their users, whilst putting in the work and the money necessary to make a change. Lip-service isn't good enough, and won't get us anywhere. Time's up. This is a stand against online abuse.