A piece by Jeremy Watson in today’s Times:
Online misogyny should be made a hate crime to protect women against growing levels of social media abuse, according to legal experts.
Existing laws do not make gender-related abuse a specific offence, allowing women to be attacked online with no legal comeback, says Dr Kim Barker, a law lecturer at Stirling University.
A five-year study of online abuse directed against women found social media platforms have been “incredibly slow” to recognise the problem and gender should be added to a list of “protected characteristics” in the UK such as race, religion and sexual orientation.
Female MSPs and MPs subjected to online assaults due to their gender said the scale of attacks was putting young women off entering politics.
Dr Barker, who wrote the study with Dr Olga Jurasz, of the Open University’s Law School, said: “Online misogyny is a particularly 21st-century problem. Increasing numbers of women and girls are experiencing a backlash for expressing an opinion or daring to participate online.”
In Scotland, Rachael Hamilton and Annie Wells, both Conservative MSPs, and Kezia Dugdale, the former Scottish Labour leader, have highlighted the abuse directed towards them.
Under current hate crime legislation, categories such as race, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity and disability are “protected characteristics”, which if raised in a public forum can lead to prosecution. A hate crime can include verbal abuse, intimidation, threats, harassment, assault and damage to property.
However, Dr Barker and Dr Jurasz argue that the lack of legislation around online misogyny is in stark contrast to both its widespread nature and its impact on victims.
Dr Barker said: “Including gender as a protected characteristic will not immediately change the attitudes, stereotypes and other factors that underpin gender-based hostility, prejudice or bias but it will signify the long-overdue legal recognition of harm directed at and suffered by women simply because they are women.
“Social media platforms have been incredibly slow to recognise the problems posed by abusive content. Lawmakers are slowly catching up but overall the law is unsuitable in this area.”
Dr Jurasz added: “People question why we need offences for online behaviour but we don’t question why we need new legislation for online banking or shopping. It must be addressed because of the severe impact it has on women’s freedom of expression.”
Ms Hamilton, the MSP for Ettrick, Roxburgh & Berwickshire, said: “Most of the responses I get online are from men both on Facebook and Twitter. I get ‘sack the bitch’ and ‘you are a disgraceful excuse for a human being’.
“I have teenage children who see all this stuff about their mother and then want to fight back as well but I don’t encourage them to do so.”
Ms Hamilton said that she supported freedom of speech but agreed with the premise that more needed to be done about clear cases of online misogyny.
Ms Wells, a Glasgow MSP, said: “The key is detecting these individuals and ensuring they feel the full force of the law when caught.”
It emerged at the weekend that Twitter has promised to meet MSPs after a cross-party group demanded it do more to tackle abuse and threats. Katy Minshall, Twitter’s UK head of public policy, said it was developing ways to clean up the standard of debate on its platform, The Mail on Sunday reported.
Online Misogyny as a Hate Crime is published by Routledge.
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