Rise of online misogyny is a ‘global gender rights tragedy’, says Baroness Shields

Online misogyny is a “powerful, decaying force taking a big step back in our attitudes towards women”, Baroness Shields, the UK Minister for Internet Safety and Security, has said. In a speech last month to the Annual Intelligence Community Women’s Summit, published online today, Baroness Shields, the Prime Minister’s ‘Special Representative on Internet Crime and Harms’, prefaced her remarks by observing the progress that has been made in the workplace and society.

“I should say that in 33 years as a working professional, I’ve seen a lot of positive changes in attitudes towards women in the workplace and in society as a whole. There is more awareness of both conscious and unconscious bias and discrimination. There is more solidarity amongst women and more women are willing to stand up for themselves.  And brave men often raised by amazing mothers, rise in support of women too, realizing that as long as women are not free, neither are they.”

But she added: “However, there is one forum in our society where, as a global community, we are failing to raise enough awareness and failing to protect women against the harms of misogyny, and that’s online. The rise of online misogyny is a global gender rights tragedy. It is a powerful, decaying force taking a big step back in our attitudes towards women. Online misogyny is enabled by virtual anonymity. The ability to remain anonymous online detaches abusers from their sense of reality and their responsibility to behave to acceptable moral standards.

“Unable to see or hear the people they hurt, they express harmful beliefs, abuse others and illicit damaging reactions without fear of punishment.  They then connect to others with similar intent, in whom perhaps these views are latent, and create networks, movements even, of aggressors.   As a result users as a whole are bombarded with negative views across every social platform they inhabit, normalising offensive language and making offensive acts seem acceptable.  And this whirlwind of negativity is dissolving our hard earned respect as women.

“So not only are these corrosive comments being shared extensively at great speed, but those who might otherwise have challenged them are desensitized to their impact. And we know from our work countering violent extremism that dangerous attitudes online can translate into tragic situations offline.  If extremist political views online can become terrorism, then online misogyny can manifest in the abuse of women in the real world.”

In a speech that also addressed the role of the Internet in fuelling terrorism, Baroness Shields said: “Unlike in the physical world where national governments can take clear and firm action to keep people safe, there are no obvious solutions in the digital world.  It is incumbent upon us to work together to find solutions to online harms and crimes.  Solutions that cross national borders and involve real partnership between government and industry.  Solutions that require unprecedented levels of collaboration for an era of unprecedented threats.”

Working at Facebook, the Prime Minister wanted to see me to talk about an urgent issue.  I had met him a few times before and had taken Mark Zuckerberg to see him shortly after his election. The funny thing about the first meeting was that Mark showed up in a suit and tie and David Cameron wore a hoodie! Baroness Shields’ speech in full.