Reports of online abuse directed toward women and girls — along with LGBTQ and nonbinary people and other marginalized groups — have risen during the nearly two years of the coronavirus pandemic, studies show.

Even as governments grapple with a growing impetus to regulate behemoth social media companies and stop cybercrimes, this overarching fact of life online — that women and girls face a heightened risk of abuse and harassment — is often missing from legislative efforts for change, anti-abuse activists say.

“We know that online abuse has a very gendered nature to it,” said Seyi Akiwowo, the founder and executive director of Glitch, a U.K. nonprofit aimed at ending online abuse. “We need language that addresses that.”

Harassment online is part of a broader, pandemic-era surge in gender-based violence worldwide, according to a report by U.N. Women released Wednesday, in the run-up to the International Day for the Elimination of Violence on Thursday.

Calls for protections gained renewed attention after a trove of internal Facebook documents released by whistleblower Frances Haugen showed that the company, which changed its corporate name to Meta last month, had produced internal research showing that its platforms and algorithms could have negative effects on teen girls’ mental health, and amplify hate speech and disinformation.

The company, which also own Instagram, is under fire to reform. But legal frameworks, said gender rights activists, are still steps behind.

Laws — and lack thereof

In May, the U.K. government released its long-awaited proposal for an Online Safety Bill to improve Internet safety. The draft version does not mention women, girls or gender issues online, though it does include the word terrorism 55 times, and children more than 200 times.

“Women’s experience of the online space,” from rape threats, to having their identities revealed, to being trolled aggressively, “isn’t being captured” in the proposed bill, said Akiwowo, of Glitch.

AI-generated videos that show a person’s face on another’s body are called “deepfakes.” They’re becoming easier to make and weaponize against women. (Drew Harwell, Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

The E.U. Parliament is working on a Digital Services Act (DSA) to increase oversight of social media companies and streamline regulation of content. The draft version proposed in December 2020, like the British proposal, did not directly address the phenomena of online violence against women and girls, according to Karen Melchior, a member of the European Parliament from Denmark who has proposed amendments to change that.

“We have a crucial moment to take action now,” she said, to create a “legal obligation for social media platforms to mitigate the risk of gender-based violence taking place on their products and being amplified by them.”

Melchior wants the law to give the E.U. more oversight over Facebook’s algorithms and process for content management.

One option is to require Facebook to conduct risk assessments of the platform’s algorithms and content management models, which E.U. legislators would then evaluate.

“Design choices have implications in regards to minorities and women,” Melchior said. “By requesting a risk assessment process and a reporting regulatory dialogue with public authorities … [it’s] forcing the platforms to consider these risks and come up with proposals for mitigating them and taking responsibility.”

Opponents of laws addressing gender explicitly argue that it’s covered under existing language and that overregulation risks leading to censorship.

But Lucina Di Meco, a co-founder of #ShePersisted Global, an international feminist initiative to stop gendered disinformation and attacks against women in politics, said that these claims ignore how social media algorithms and existing content laws leave women and girls at a disproportionate risk for abuse — and, studies show, they may turn to self-censorship as a result to avoid it.

“The status quo is in no way supporting freedom of expression,” she said. “It’s in reality supporting censorship of women online.”

Inefficient rules “ultimately run the risk of empty precedents for other countries,” she added.

Pandemic of online harassment

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, women, girls and many marginalized groups had been raising alarm about online abuse and harassment. Over the past two years, the pandemic has driven still more of life online.

A 2020 study by the Economist Intelligence Unit, which surveyed women in 51 countries with high rates of Internet usage from May 2019 to May 2020, found that 1 in 3 women think twice before posting online.

Online abuse and harassment has offline consequences, the study found. Around 7 percent of women surveyed lost jobs due to virtual abuse. Thirty-five percent said it induced mental health issues. One in 10 reported that online threats had led to physical harm: Nearly three-fourths of respondents feared that happening.

More than 50 percent of respondents who were victims of online abuse also said they personally knew their perpetrator.

In Britain, the number of people who said they have been a victim of revenge porn — when intimate sexual images of someone are shared online without their consent, which disproportionately affects women — has nearly doubled since 2019, according to a March survey of 18-to-45-year-olds by leading law firm Slater and Gordon, Reuters reported.

One in 10 people polled also admitted that they had shared, or threatened to share, an explicit image of someone without consent, which was criminalized in the U.K. in 2015.

Another survey by Glitch in September 2020 found that Black, minority and nonbinary participants were both more likely to have experienced online abuse and to report that it had worsened during the pandemic.

Space for reform

Melchior said she is “optimistic” that her gender-related amendments to the Digital Services Act will be considered as work on the legislation continues.

But Esha Meher, a South Asia-focused research associate at End Cyber Abuse, a U.S.-based collective of lawyers and human rights activists, said she fears regulatory and legislative reforms geared toward protecting women and people with intersecting or marginalized identities in the Global South remains a long way off.

“People in the Global South are less focused on by tech companies,” she said.

The communities she works with in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan have far fewer Internet safety organizations championing their needs compared with Western countries. Politically and culturally, the issues also remain too taboo for major governmental action.

“There is still a lot of stigma” around online gender-based violence, she said.

Though covid-19 restrictions are easing in many countries, including India, Meher said she does not expect the level and forms of online violence there to recede as well.

“Now that people have this knowledge, now that they know you can do all these things with technologies, it’s not like you go back to ‘normal,'" she said.