I’m the BBC’s first specialist disinformation reporter – and I receive abusive messages on social media daily. Most are too offensive to share unedited. The trigger? My coverage of the impact of online conspiracies and fake news. I expect to be challenged and criticised – but misogynistic hate directed at me has become a very regular occurrence.
Messages are laden with slurs based on gender, and references to rape, beheading and sexual acts. Some are a mish-mash of conspiracy theories – that I’m “Zionist-controlled”, that I, myself, am responsible for raping babies. The C-word and F-word are repeatedly used.
It’s not just me – from politicians around the world and Love Island stars to frontline doctors, I’ve been hearing from women subjected to the same kind of hate. New research, shared with the BBC, suggests women are more likely to receive this sort of abuse than men, it’s getting worse – and it’s often combined with racism and homophobia.
I wanted to understand why this is happening, the threat it poses – and why social media sites, the police and the government aren’t doing more about it. So, I set out to make a film for the BBC’s Panorama programme.
We set up a fake troll account across the five most popular social media platforms to see whether they are promoting misogynistic hate to such users. Using an AI-generated photograph, we designed our fake troll to be similar to the people who sent me abuse. Our troll engaged with content recommended by the social media platforms, but did not send out any hate.
As part of the programme, think-tank Demos carried out a comprehensive deep dive into abuse received by reality TV contestants, analysing more than 90,000 posts and comments about them. It was perhaps a surprising place to start, but programmes like Love Island serve almost as a microcosm for society, allowing researchers to compare the abuse directed at men and women from different backgrounds. Their popularity also generates a lot of online conversation.
Our troll account was recommended more and more anti-women content by Facebook and Instagram, some involving sexual violence.
Female reality TV contestants – including those on this year’s Love Island – are disproportionately targeted on social media, with abuse frequently rooted in misogyny and combined with racism.
Draft proposals for the UN asking social media companies to better protect women have been shared exclusively with Panorama.
Abusive accounts untouched
Social media companies say they take online hate against women seriously – and they have rules to protect users from abuse. These include suspending, restricting or even shutting down accounts sending hate.
But my experience suggests they often don’t. I reported some of the worst messages I’ve ever received – including threats to come to my house to rape me and commit horrific sexual acts – to Facebook when I received them. But months later, the account remained on Facebook, along with dozens of other Instagram and Twitter accounts sending me abuse.
It turns out my experience is part of a pattern. New research for this programme by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, shows how 97% of 330 accounts sending misogynistic abuse on Twitter and Instagram remained on the site after being reported.
Twitter and Instagram say they take action when their rules are violated, and closing accounts isn’t the only option.