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What Is Online Harassment and How Does It Affect Marginalized Groups?
March 7, 2023

A person's hands typing on a laptop computer. Online harassment has profound implications for marginalized individuals.
Gender-based online harassment has profound implications for marginalized individuals.

The digital world offers a useful medium for female empowerment and community building, amplifying the voices of marginalized populations globally. However, social media and online spaces can also be used to exacerbate gender-based online harassment and proliferate structural gender-based violence through disinformation, cyberharassment, cyberstalking, sextortion, recruitment for sex trafficking, revenge porn and threats of physical assault. The perpetrator-victim dynamic changes drastically in an online context, permitting perpetrators to hide behind the anonymity of the internet. Online violence is pervasive and has profound implications for the ability of women, girls and other marginalized individuals to exist safely in digital spaces. Marginalized groups — including women, gender minoritized groups, LGBTQ+ persons and people with disabilities — are the most vulnerable to coordinated violence in an online context.

Gender-based online abuse is far more prevalent in regions with diminished social and political protections for women and girls. The lessened social status of victims of gender-based online harassment means that there is often little legal or protective recourse for them. According to the United Nations, approximately 40% of all solicitation and recruitment for sex trafficking begins on social media, which markedly increased with the COVID-19 pandemic. Through social media platforms and online chat platforms, predatory actors can more easily solicit in-person interaction with young girls or exploit vulnerable groups to share explicit images, engage in sexual activities or enter into relationships. Survivors of these illegal acts may face immense psychological and physical challenges, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, suicidal ideation and self-harm. Victims of online gender abuse often must also navigate the burden of these challenges alone absent widespread social acknowledgement of the legitimate harms of gender-based online harassment.

Female public figures, including politicians, community members and nonprofit leaders, are often targeted by coordinated online harassment campaigns that seek to impeach their credibility, sexualize them and curtail their involvement in the public sphere. This challenge is shared by nations around the globe, regardless of the type of government, the economic income group or the expansiveness of the legal protections for female citizens. Persistent gender-based attacks on female leaders in online spaces creates a chilling effect for female leadership and normalizes harassment. The anonymity of online spaces aids in these abuses because perpetrators do not face consequences criminally, personally or professionally.

Identifying and curtailing online gender-based harassment requires robust educational modules that promote best practices to prevent these acts. To hold bad actors accountable, victims and trusted adults should follow these steps from StopBullying.Gov:

  • Identify abusive behavior.
  • Document online harassment by taking screenshots of what is happening and where.
  • Report offensive content to an adult, through the social media platform or to relevant authorities.
  • Determine if additional support is needed, such as involving professional intervention from a guidance counselor or mental health professional. 

Strong community-grounded leadership is needed to animate these practices with community conversations, support and check-ins. Now, more than ever, this issue necessitates immediate action. 

Are you interested in learning more about women’s empowerment and gender equality? Visit our Africa4Her page for more tools and resources.