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The impact of online abuse and harassment

Work with offenders looks at new research from the Victims’ Commissioner

New research published today by the Victims’ Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird QC, brings into sharp focus the impact online abuse has on its victims. The findings come as the government’s Online Safety Bill, which promises to make the UK “the safest place in the world to be online”, is set to be scrutinised by MPs in committee stage. The Bill will introduce a “duty of care” on tech firms, who will be required by law to protect users from online abuse. Those platforms which fail to protect users could face fines of up to 10% of their revenues or, in the most serious cases, risk being blocked.

The research

The report, which draws on over 534 responses to a survey hosted on the Victims’ Commissioner’s website, shows that most abusive and harmful behaviour online causes real emotional harm to victims. Almost all victims of online abuse reported experiencing some level of harm from the abuse, with 91% of all victims indicating that the abuse impacted them in some way. Women reported higher levels of harm with only 3% of women saying the online abuse did not bother them.

The most common types of abuse reported were cyberbullying and online harassment. Intimate image abuse (sometimes referred to as revenge porn) and cyber-stalking were the two most high-impact offences. For victims of intimate image abuse, the ramifications can be severe and long-term. Victims spoke of images remaining accessible long after they were first posted online.

Respondents showed a general dissatisfaction with the responses from the police and internet companies when victims reported their abuse. Survey responses showed victims were frequently met with a lack of understanding, exacerbating an already traumatic experience. Some victims reported the severity of the crimes against them was often minimised and they felt like they were being blamed for the offence.

The survey found that most of the abuse took place on social media, with 60% reporting the abuse occurred on Facebook. However, it is important to note that the abuse was not limited to the internet, with 40% reporting that the abuse also occurred in person.

The research, prepared by Dr Madeleine Storry and Dr Sarah Poppleton, was commissioned to help inform and shape the Online Safety Bill, which aims to establish a new framework to tackle harmful online content. It will introduce a ‘duty of care’ on large social websites – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat, for example – but also sites such as OnlyFans. The government claims the legislation is the most ambitious of its kind globally.

Recommendations

The report presents a range of recommendations to better safeguard victims from online harm. They include internet companies moving to immediately remove abusive content on request and before any investigation taking place, and ensuring complaints are handled by real people and not algorithms or bots. Police should also introduce specialisms and dedicated training to enable officers to better handle online crimes.

Although one third (33%) of respondents said the police recognised the abuse as a crime, one in three (33%) said the police did not investigate the offences and 16% said no action was taken after an investigation concluded. Less than a quarter (23%) felt that they were kept fully informed about their case progression by police or that they had all the information they needed about the case.

Others reported that a catalogue of errors by the police even increased the levels of abuse they received. Some of these mistakes were extremely serious; One victim wrote: “In the report I made to the police, they mixed up victim and perpetrator details and gave the person threatening me my personal details, as a result, threats increased, and I was at greater risk as they now knew my place of work and other personal details.”

There were even higher levels of dissatisfaction expressed with the internet companies. Of the 43% who reported the abuse to internet companies, 65% were dissatisfied with the response they received. Many expressed frustrations with the lack of human response, with most interactions handled by a form or a bot. The repeated advice to block the abusers also had negligible impact given the ease that people committing the abuse could open new accounts.

Overall, there was an air of resignation from those who chose not to report the abuse. One quarter (25%) felt there was no point in reporting as nothing would arise from the complaint. In the words of one victim:

“The sad truth is that women don’t expect anything to be done about it. I’d report if I felt anything would be done.”

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