DIY Safety: Fighting against online abuse

*TRIGGER WARNING* This post contains discussions about abusive language, murder and sexual assault and/or violence including examples of the language and threats in question, which may be triggering to survivors.

There is no doubting that social media has provided a whole realm of opportunities for women and minority communities.

Online platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have given us the opportunity to express our views, and find online communities of like-minded individuals on a truly global scale. More recently, social media has also given people the ability to disclose abuse and create online support networks to meet and support others who have been through similar trauma.

However, as is regularly reported, social media also has a darker side. It can and has been used to abuse, spread hate and harass from thousands of miles away, from behind the veil of online anonymity.

In the United Kingdom, female Members of Parliament (MPs) are flooded with sexist and racist comments, threats of rape, torture and murder, as well as threats to their families, sometimes on a daily basis. During the 2017 election, Diane Abbott received almost half of all abusive tweets sent to female MPs, much of which was misogynoir in nature, making her one of the most abused women in politics within the UK. Tulip Siddiq, a Labour MP, received messages such as “If I could I would kill you”, Jess Phillips MP received more than 600 threats of rape in one night via Twitter, and Stella Creasy MP was told “Dead girl walking. Hope you get raped. We got your phone number and details”.

And this problem certainly isn’t confined to the UK. India, for example, ranks third in the world for rates of cyber-bullying, according to the Cyber-bullying Research Centre in the US. A report by Freedom House found that, of 500 people surveyed in India, 58 percent had faced some kind of online aggression such as trolling, bullying, abuse or harassment. “If I write feminist views, men start calling me names and making offensive remarks,” one woman stated.

In Italy, Laura Boldrini, the speaker of the lower house of the Italian Parliament, received messages such as “We know where your apartment [is], we know your address”. And these comments weren’t just being made anonymously — a male politician, Beppe Grillo, openly posted “What would you do alone in a car with Boldrini?”. Shockingly, online abuse is coming even from those who are elected to protect our interests, and not make us feel unsafe and vulnerable.

Information shared online can put you at physical risk

We could just say ‘delete the message’, ‘ignore them’, ‘it’s just words, they can’t hurt you’ — but in some cases, they can. A 2016 study by the NSPCC found that online bullying often led to verbal and physical bullying at school, and in 2015, the Office for National Statistics found that there is a “clear association” between time spent on social media and mental health problems. We must also remember the tragic death of Jo Cox MP who was murdered in 2016. Although her attacker has not been linked to the months of abuse she received online, we cannot ignore the real life danger that online threats of murder and rape pose.

We may not realise it, but, for most of us, there is a wealth of our personal information shared online. For starters, people can easily track our location. When we post pictures on Instagram or Snapchat, they are often GPS tagged, meaning the location of the photo is embedded. This can enable anyone to find places where you regularly go. If you use a running app, such as Strava, people who follow you can track your routes. Luckily, Strava’s enhanced privacy settings mean that the app doesn’t let others see your final destination. However, you need to ensure you have these settings on, and also make sure not to accept people you don’t know, as they can still see the main route you take. In short, people have much more access to our physical location than we think.

At Chayn, we know that safer online practices can help people feel safer in their daily lives, which is why we created the DIY Online Security Guide. The guide is for everyone looking to take a safer approach to online use, everywhere. It is available in English, Arabic, Spanish, French, Farsi, Pashto, Urdu, Russian and Italian. Though it was written predominantly with women facing risk of domestic abuse and potentially stalking in mind, the guide and its principles can be used irrespective of gender, location or situation. It provides clear and simple steps we can all take to minimise our vulnerability online. Our top tips include:

  • Installing browser extensions that block trackers
  • Creating the perfect password
  • Protecting browsing history from abusers within your own home (e.g. domestic abusers)
  • Making your social media pages as secure as possible.

As an organisation that leverages technology to provide women with the skills and tools to live happy and healthy lives, we believe that it is not the responsibility of survivors of abuse to protect themselves against violence and oppression. However, we realise that there are steps everyone can take that will make them safer online and feel more in control of their own privacy and security.

We maintain that the internet and social media is a positive source for communication, freedom of speech, connectivity, and knowledge. We also believe that everyone should have equal and safe access, so we don’t want people to feel they have to leave these platforms to feel safe. The DIY Online Safety Guide aims to facilitate the secure and liberating use of technology, without reducing access, by providing simple, easy to follow steps to ensure their privacy and security.


This blog post was written by Chayn volunteer, Jenny Buchanan.