This text was originally published on Plan International’s website on Apr. 25, 2019 to mark. International Girls in ICT Day.
“You’re simply the best”, “Hero!!!”, “I’m in awe of you”, “You Are a Great Leader!”
So read some of the thousands of comments on Greta Thunberg’s Twitter feed. Yet despite the 16-year-old climate change activist galvanising over 1.6 million people to act through her school strike for climate action, you don’t have to do a lot digging online to find the backlash. There are claims of Greta spreading ”propaganda”, calls for her to return to school and stop inciting other children to strike.
This is not surprising. While the internet and social media have been huge enablers for Greta’s message to reach millions, her activism has also made her a target for the trolls, cyberbullies, and fake accounts well-known to many activists online.
The World Wide Web, 30 years old this year, is not a friendly place for girls and women. And the more vocal they are, the worse the abuse. Research reveals that female politicians on social media are over 3 times more likely to experience derogatory comments* related to their gender than their male counterparts. Younger women are disproportionately targeted.
The Role of Bots
Increasingly, this violence is perpetrated not only by humans, but by bots too. Around half of all web traffic today is created by bots*. Some are eminently useful, performing tasks such as repairing links, removing vandalism and tagging articles on Wikipedia.
However, bots, like any technology, are not neutral. They do what they were programmed to do and some actively uphold inequalities and crowd out alternative views online.
Social bots, essentially fake accounts that imitate real humans, are creating a growing amount of content on social media. Some 15% of all active Twitter accounts are presumed bots*, but they punch above their weight; unlike humans, bots don’t need to eat or sleep – they can post content 24/7. This makes it possible for bot-created content to flood social media streams, skewing public debate and amplifying hateful rhetoric, violence, and abuse.
For instance, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton received supporting messages from social bots* in the 2016 US elections. However, Trump had more bots producing positive messages about him, while half of bot-produced messages about Clinton criticised her. Bots are also contributing to Instagram’s massive harassment problem as well as spreading anti-Muslim rhetoric and fake news across social media.
We Need More Women in Tech
With the web increasingly created by bots, who creates them is an important question. As the tech sector remains dominated by men, it’s fair to assume they create most bots. This has consequences in terms of what bots are designed to do and what problems they solve - or create.
The founder of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, is rightfully worried about the future of the web. In his annual letter this year he highlights harassment as one of the central problems affecting the internet today, contributing to making “many people feel afraid and unsure if the web is really a force for good.” He calls for us to step up “to make sure [the web] is recognised as a human right and built for the public good.”
As we step up, the “we” must include girls and women. For 3 decades, the World Wide Web has been a playground where the rules – or rather the lack of rules – have been determined by far too few. It’s been a place where hatred and violence have been allowed to thrive, where success has been defined based on number of engagements, not whether those engagements are useful, safe, or even made by a real human.
No more. Being female online should not be a synonym for being abused. We need a web that is created by a diverse group of people, putting equality at the centre of its structures and processes. A web where girls, women, and other marginalised groups can exercise their freedom of expression without harassment. A web that allows the Gretas of the world to thrive and that amplifies the voices of those otherwise not heard. We need a feminist web.
Change is Vital so Girls Get Equal
Concrete action is needed to make that happen. The lack of diversity in tech is keeping the internet from reaching its potential for good. We need to create opportunities in the technology sector, so girls and women can be involved in determining how the web operates, and what type of bots are allowed to operate and how.
We also need social media platforms to improve their processes for reporting and dealing with abuse so that girls can safely create content that represents their views and needs. Facebook, for instance, currently does not differentiate abuse relating to gender, causing much of the abuse suffered by girls and women to go unidentified. Significantly, social media platforms, including Twitter and Instagram, must put user rights and safety before profits and growth. Bots masquerading as real humans must be banned.
Meanwhile, governments must ensure legal frameworks stay up-to-date with technological developments, so perpetrators of online abuse, including bots, are stopped and held to account.
Through our youth-led, global campaign, Girls Get Equal, Plan International is making sure girls and young women have power over their lives and can shape the world around them – online and off. As we celebrate Girls in ICT Day today, we are encouraging girls all over the world to get into tech and help us make sure the web is a safe place for us all to exercise our rights – to help us make the World Wide Web feminist.