The Online Safety Bill must go further to hold tech companies accountable for tackling misogynistic abuse online
The long-awaited Online Safety Bill is an example of legislation that is both personal and political for me and many parliamentarians.
As a woman in public life, it feels depressingly inevitable that having a public profile or platform comes with being barraged with abuse which is, more often than not, sexist and misogynistic.
I know this is the case for many MPs and peers of all political stripes and recent research backs this up. The Fawcett Society found that online abuse towards MPs is highly gendered: 93 per cent of women MPs said that online abuse or harassment has a negative impact on how they feel about being an MP, while 73 per cent of women MPs said they don’t use social media to speak on certain issues because of the abusive environment online, compared to 51 per cent of male MPs. This is a clear example of the ways in which women’s freedom of speech is silenced by online abuse, which should concern everyone in favour of a more equal society.
Equally troubling is the popularity of misogynistic influencers, inspired by Andrew Tate, among men and boys. These attempts to vilify, intimidate, and belittle women and girls online impact us in both our public and private lives – and for many women is part of a wider pattern of domestic abuse. Schools and colleges are reportedly battling a tidal wave of misogyny, due to the popularity of these influencers among boys, and girls risk internalising such ideas. How can we make good progress tackling violence against women and girls when such dangerous and toxic ideas are gaining traction?
Having a public profile comes with being barraged with abuse which is, more often than not, sexist and misogynistic
We know that behind every individual spouting tired tropes about women and girls is a hugely profitable business model, which benefits from virality and engagement of the worst kind, and therefore even serves this kind of content to users who weren’t looking for it to begin with. The Online Safety Bill gives us the opportunity to tackle this at its root. But while it promises to introduce tough new measures to ensure tech platforms tackle illegality online, it fails to name violence against women and girls and proposes that women and girls simply “filter out” sexism and misogyny through so-called user empowerment tools. Not being able to see the abusive (and worse) content doesn’t make it go away.
As a former culture secretary, I am supporting an amendment for a violence against women and girls (VAWG) code of practice in the bill to ensure that it holds tech companies to account for tackling VAWG. It would be remiss of a government, which has repeatedly committed to prioritising VAWG, to let women and girls down simply because the abuse takes place online rather than offline.
Violence against women and girls is of course not inevitable, but really tackling it from root to branch relies on a commitment from all parts of government to this cause. The Online Safety Bill must not let this opportunity pass by.
Baroness Morgan of Cotes is a Conservative peer and former culture secretary
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