Why we need to start talking about online harassment: In conversation with Phoebe Jameson

CW: Discussion of online harassment and abuse which includes references to death threats, suicide, and sexual violence

With the national lockdown extended indefinitely, COVID-19 has seen an unprecedented translation of habitual social interactions to online spaces, from work, education and shopping to dating and even watching Netflix with your friends. Whilst a reliance on social media for communication purposes is nothing new, the increased online visibility demanded by these conditions carries with it as many risks as it does benefits. 

There is a noticeable lack of information on the impact and extent of online harassment and abuse, with the latest figures I could access from a Rapid Evidence Assessment conducted in 2019 showing that over half of participants reported seeing some form of harmful or negative content online. Worryingly, 59% of these participants did not report or take action against this harassment. Moreover, an article from The Metro published in January states that over half of the women in the UK who experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace continued to receive abuse when working online at home.

I sat down with Phoebe Jameson, an online activist working at the mental health support organization the Speak Up Space, to chat about why we need to start talking about online harassment.

Carmen: You have quite a large following on social media, especially around your activism, and sharing some of your candid experiences around mental health – what sparked your initial interest in campaigning for greater awareness of online harassment?

Phoebe: I think online especially, amongst the community I´ve built up, and creators I follow, no one was really talking about it. People would bring it up every now and then, but it wasn´t this continuous conversation. There’s only one organization I know of that tackles online harassment, but it’s more around workspaces, and they don´t cover all online spaces – I think that’s what´s missing. 

But the main reason is that I experienced it at such a mass extent, like it didn´t stop, so I thought – right – every time it happens, I´m just going to show it’s happening. I did that at first, but now I don´t as much, because some of it is so triggering for people – and for myself – that it’s not always something I want to share. So yes, it was kind of this lack of conversation around it that made me think, oh, this is really bad and a lot of us actually go through this and no one is doing anything, and the people who are supposed to do something, aren´t, you know, the people in positions of power, who have the control.  So, it really come from the need of someone, or an organization, or a campaign, there´s a need for something to change – now it’s just about working out what that specific change is going to be.

Via Twitter

Carmen: Do you think this is something that affects people generally, or are there particular social groups who are more vulnerable to online harassment?

Phoebe: I think it’s very nuanced. First off, anyone can experience it, and also, anyone can do it, it’s not completely restricted. However, it is usually women or femmes who experience it more, as it affects anyone who had already experienced some form of social marginalization. There´s so much racism, transphobia, homophobia, fatphobia, misogyny – anyone who is oppressed in any form. And typically, it’s younger people. I´d say it mainly affects people between the ages of 18 and 30. People who are more outspoken, or transparent, or honest are also targets. I think that comes from social media being thought of as a form of escape from real life. Obviously, at the moment, social media is our lives! But I would say it generally impacts more marginalized or oppressed groups within society more broadly, because people can be so subtle with their hatred online.

Carmen: Yeh I completely agree with that! You started to address this in your first answer, but I came across one of your Instagram live videos around the difficulties in getting things done about abuse and harassment in a more direct and permanent way and, as you stated, it is usually people with the power, like police, social media platforms themselves, who don´t take things seriously, or are difficult to collaborate with. Do you believe there needs to be new regulations or laws in place to implement safety to a greater degree? I don´t know much about laws that are already in place, and obviously, they might not be as effective if this problem persists, but where do you think the changes need to be made? Do you reckon it’s more to do with how we educate people on how to use it? Or is it more about the police and platforms themselves that need to start being more proactive?

Phoebe: I think it needs to begin with changes at the level of the police and social media platforms, but I think an actual cultural change needs to take place more widely, as most of the abuse is directly targeted towards marginalized persons.

In terms of the law itself, and how people go about reporting it, me and another person are currently looking into Freedom of Information to find actual statistics and figures for how many are affected, how many times this has been prosecuted, because its very hard to find this information just by looking on Google. And I think that’s partly the reason why not many people report it. Legislation and policies against online harassment are in place to a certain extent, the Act of Malicious Communication is from 1988, and they’ve put in an appeal for it to be changed. I´ve personally looked at this appeal, and there are still things missing from it, and it obviously just covers UK law. This is not a problem that just happens to me in the South West of England, this is a global problem. So that’s why I think social media policies themselves need to change. 

For example, I was harassed by an account sending death threats, and I reported what they had said to me – sending a screenshot from my Instagram account – and Instagram replied saying “Sorry! We can´t find a problem with this!” And I thought, what do you mean? I´ve done what we’re told to do when this happens? You know, we´re told at school to report these things, we´re supposed to report it to the people who are supposed to protect us. So, I think it’s the algorithm that needs to change because we don’t always know if it’s a person or an algorithm operating the support system.

Also, it´s so easy for people who harass online to make a new account and just carry on. I could make a new account as I´m on this phone call with you, I can make one in two minutes, and it would be out there, and I could find someone´s @ and give them abuse and harassment. It´s just so easy. Again, it comes back to being a mixture of policy change, and also cultural change: what´s leading people to do this, how they´re being taught, and how there are no real repercussions. And some of the people give out online abuse, and who are trolls, and who give death threats, malice, and slander – they are generally insecure themselves. They may be a bad person, but they also have this insecurity which they are projecting onto other people who are outspoken and confident. Ultimately, I think it really comes down to a combination; a change in both policies, and the person.

Via Instagram

Carmen: I´d like to draw attention to an issue that I find personally quite upsetting, as I´ve reported a number of accounts previously who have been abusing or harassing my friends or people I follow – including some of the accounts you´ve mentioned – but I´ve actually had to go onto the account and see all the horrific content before I could report it.

Phoebe: That’s another reason why I´m so hesitant to showcase it to people: because I can´t take an account down on my own, I have to then ask my community, followers, and friends, to help – but then everyone has to read it. And if it’s something like fatphobia or misogyny, and you have experienced this kind of abuse yourself, it just affects other people. Therefore, online abuse doesn´t just affect the person its directly intended for. 

Often in the reporting process on Twitter you have to select five tweets to get an account taken down. But no one wants to sit with that really, or have to read that – it’s so frustrating that now, we as a community online, have to sit down and do the work that we’re not really supposed to be doing?

Carmen: As you mentioned previously, because of the pandemic, everything is now online, so more people are going to be coming into contact with and experiencing harassment. Are there any resources you´d recommend, or any advice for someone reading this who is also experiencing online harassment?

Phoebe: I´m very sorry to say there´s actually not much out there, and I have looked very hard for something. Glitch UK are a wonderful organization and charity who do a lot of online work to make online spaces safe for people. If it’s something around sexual violence and sexual imagery – which I also have experience with – then I´m going to plug my own organization: The Speak Up Space are here to talk about that. We talk to people who experience cyber harassment, as well as public harassment. It´s hard, as there´s not really anything specific, and that’s part of the problem.

One thing I would say is, go to the police. If someone is inciting you to hurt yourself, or to violence, or creating slander, or harassing you, or abusing you online – it fits the description of a crime, and something will be done about it. It is valid abuse, and the aftermath of it is horrific. My stress levels have gone up, it has such an overwhelming effect. 

Carmen: I guess that’s why having these kinds of conversations are critical, because although we have cyberbullying talks at school, they´re not really in-depth? And we´re never taught how to respond at a practical level?

Phoebe: Yes, that’s exactly it. And because when cyberbullying happens in schools, it’s usually dealt with internally, it’s not an external issue. But sometimes you hear news stories about students who have ended their lives, and it just makes you wonder, how has this just been allowed by social media platforms and schools? 

Its lack of awareness as well, because it’s online people just tell you to block or go on private or censor yourself. That’s basically what they say, they tell you to censor yourself! And the whole point is, we shouldn’t have to! There’s so many factors to this, and I really think its something that has been generally neglected by our society as a whole, just because its online. But it doesn´t make me or anyone feel any safer. For example, if someone was to say some of these things to me in the street, they would be arrested. But as it’s online, it’s not taken seriously! 

Carmen: As you said, it’s a very complex and challenging issue. I think it’s very important to start having these conversations, and as you said before, it’s very tiring and overwhelming work! My final question is a bit different, but I was wondering if you had any hobbies or activities which help you unwind or take your mind off this involvement?

Phoebe: I do, and I would recommend to everyone doing a hobby or activity somewhere where people can´t comment: a safe space is very important! For example, I play bass, and it takes my mind off things – and I’m just there with the music, just playing. It brings me so much joy, as I love music! Just doing something you enjoy, no matter how silly that might be! Also, just dressing up in nice clothes, and watching films – especially during the pandemic, it’s quite nice to hear another voice in the room!

You can follow Phoebe´s work on her Twitter via @fatpheebs, or listen to her podcasts here and here. To access the Speak Up Space, click here.

All images via @fatpheebs on Instagram.