Have you ever noticed how gigantic my jaw is? Freakishly angular: as if I had swallowed a rhombus. I think it’s quite dashing, but it seems to bother strangers on Twitter, who regularly send me jabs about my jaw. These, by the way, are the polite strangers. Most of the online messages I get are rather more explicit, albeit unimaginatively so. “You should have been aborted”; “die quicker, please”; rape threats; the usual insult that rhymes with Jeremy Hunt. Mostly it’s a manageable drip-drip-drip of nastiness. Some days, however, the volume of online abuse will be quite overwhelming, unbearable even, and I’ll have to temporarily deactivate my Twitter account.
I’m not trying to throw myself a pity party. What is most depressing about my experience is just how common it is. More than a third of women, and almost half of younger women worldwide, have experienced abuse online, according to a 2021 study from the Economist Intelligence Unit. Social networks are constantly pledging to do something about the misogynistic hellholes they have created but clearly too busy selling our data to bother spending any time on user safety. In news that will shock nobody, a new analysis by Amnesty International has found that, despite repeated calls to improve the platform, Twitter is falling short on its promises to protect women and marginalised groups from online abuse. What is more, it seems that women have given up hoping Twitter will ever do anything. Amnesty found that 40% of women who use the platform more than once a day experience abuse and many don’t bother reporting it to the network. According to the survey, 100% of the women who use the platform numerous times a week and who didn’t report abuse said doing so was “not worth the effort.” Since nothing ever gets done, why waste your time?
Online abuse has become shockingly normalised. Yes, there is outrage about it but there is also apathy: a sense that this is just what the internet is like. If you are a woman of colour who has the temerity to express an opinion online, then you know that vicious trolling is par for the course and you are just expected to get on with it. If you are a female journalist or politician – if you are anyone whose job means they have a public profile – then you are expected to put up with vile abuse every single day. That is simply the price you pay for having a voice.
There have been times recently where I’ve wondered whether all the abuse is worth it. I’ve thought about giving up on writing and going back to a nice stable job outside the media where I don’t have to deal with daily viciousness, or worry about my safety. And that, of course, is the point of the online abuse – trolls don’t want to hurt your feelings, they want to shut you up. They want young women to look at the harassment that comes with having a platform and say, no thanks, not for me. They want people to look at the price you pay for talking about subjects such as racism and sexism and decide it’s better to keep quiet.
I can acknowledge that ridding the internet of nastiness isn’t something you can do overnight. But tech companies can do a hell of a lot more about it than they are doing now. The problem is, they don’t want to. Their PR departments will spout a lot of guff about how concerned they are about user safety, but they never put their money where their mouth is. Their business models, after all, depend on engagement: that is the only thing they prioritise. Tech bros have spent years feeding the trolls and that toxicity has seeped into every part of society. We shouldn’t normalise this nastiness. If we can send people to Mars, surely we can make the internet a little less misogynistic?
• Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist