Digital Abuse Not Limited to Social Media

We’ve all heard about people experiencing abuse in online social platforms, but did you realize it happens in professional digital spaces as well? I’ll say I’d honestly never thought about it until this past week when I attended Sara Perry’s Gender & Digital Identity talk at the CDEP’s Fourth Annual International Symposium on Digital Ethics last. Perry is the Director of Studies of Digital Heritage at the University of York, and her talk focused on how abuse in digital media occurs in professional settings.

Perry’s research included conducting a survey of nearly 400 individuals, both male and female, in 250 different professions. A third of all participants, across all disciplines, reported some incidence of inappropriate or uncomfortable interactions in a professional capacity online. Additionally, participants noted that most of these perpetrators where known offline. Perry designated four categories for these incidences: personal attacks, professional attacks, general badmouthing, and sexual/physical/racist attacks. Of the respondents, more women admitted to receiving sexual/physical/racist threats while more men reported professional attacks.

Perry went on to mention specific quotes from the surveys she received. One woman responded that “harassment and the ever present threat of harm” has had such a huge impact on her life that she’s “erased [herself] online.”

Perry noted that less than 3 out of 5 respondents indicated that they had taken action against abuse online, and those that did take action mostly did so independent of someone else’s support. The most common reaction reported was to disregard to the communications entirely.

What I found most concerning, but not necessarily surprising, was the reported institutional non-response. Perry discussed how most institutions have no policies in place regarding digital abuse in professional settings, and the majority of institutions simply ignore the problem entirely.

Perry attributed some of this non-response to the stigmas surrounding cyberbullying, especially in professional settings. She mentioned a quote from Audra Mitchell, a fellow University of York lecturer, that online abuse “is most certainly not part of ‘what we sign up for’ as academics. This kind of behaviour would not (we can only hope) be tolerated on campus, a conference or any other workplace, but when it happens online, its victims are expected to simply put up with it.”

So where do we go from here? The number of responses and the details of their experiences online can be discouraging, but Perry and other academics have proposed some possible solutions. Perry mentioned Kate Clancy’s proposal for developing cross-institutional codes of conduct instead of one-off policies that are implemented and patrolled independently. By broadening and standardizing these codes of conduct, it removes pressure from institutions to craft and monitor their own individual policies while hopefully creating more protection and greater support for individuals who are facing these digital attacks.

While I hadn’t really considered the state of professional digital interactions, Perry’s research findings do seem to reflect the general digital landscape in terms of gendered abuse. The reality of abuse on social media is widely discussed today but I think few realize that it’s not just limited to social platforms.


One comment

  1. I wasn’t able to attend this talk but I really think it brings up interesting points. In a digital age where someone is abnormal if they are not present online, certain people are facing ridiculous amounts of harassment on that very platform. It is a difficult decision to make, I’m sure that woman who answered the survey that she wanted to “erase herself online” now faces other issues because she’s extricated herself from the internet. This goes into topics touched in Sarkeesian’s talk about the necessity to combat this harassment online more so people don’t just have to “walk away” from the internet, because that isn’t really possible anymore.

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