Content warning: abuse

It’s not easy to find views outside of your opinion on social media. So as an experiment, I decided to see how long it would take to find views outside of my echo chamber. In particular, how long and how difficult would it be for me to find online hate or abuse. Police forces are still struggling to define online hate. However, generally online hate or abuse is an online communication that demonstrates hostility towards someones gender, race, disability, religion, sexual orientation or transgender identity.

I typed ‘women’s rights’ into a Twitter search. The fourth post was a BBC article about how women Kenyan farmers are facing sexual abuse by security guards. I typed in ‘Black Lives Matter’. The third post down said that people who boo footballers who take the knee were not racist. I typed in ‘feminism’. The second post described in detail what a man would do to a woman pictured in a photo.

This is a snapshot of the online abuse women and ethnic minorities face online. It didn’t take long and I didn’t have to look far. 

When Boris Johnson and Sport and Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden voiced their support of England cricketer Ollie Robinson over his suspension for past sexist and racist tweets, they did more than just demonstrate their severe lack of understanding about the impact of online abuse. Similarly when former England captain David Gower stated on Radio 4 that Robinson had tweeted “misguidedly”, that social media was “a very dangerous implement in the hands of […] young people” and that a lot of the things his generation said to each other “would have been classed as reprehensible albeit maybe so as tongue in cheek or as a joke or as a naive mis-comment”, he symbolised everything that is wrong about attitudes to online abuse.

Let’s quickly address the notion that age is an excuse here. Robinson is the same age as me. We are the generation that grew up with the internet and social media but more importantly, we grew up before the internet was the centre for communication. Even in those dark ages, it was in no way ever acceptable to write abuse to someone. Just because the internet was introduced to us as the place you could find anything, it doesn’t mean that you have a free pass to upload hate. 

The fact that Gower classed these comments alongside those his generation would consider “tongue in cheek” is bizarre. The comments weren’t funny. They were offensive. But because some say they come under the banter banner they’re excused. They’re not real. No one is physically being hurt. But they do hurt. They humiliate and belittle. They’re written down so you don’t forget them, so that they are there for all to see. They underpin dangerous viewpoints and allow the precarious progression from banter to abuse. It is the lowest form of hate.

Politicians don’t realise the seriousness or scale of this abuse. Amnesty International found that women received an abusive tweet every 30 seconds, 1.1 million in total, and that black women were 84% more likely to receive abusive tweets. This likely to be far greater in reality, because many instances of online abuse are sometimes not even recorded because police forces are unsure how to record online abuse. For example, in 2017 less than 1% of cases investigated by the police lead to charges. It is extremely disturbing that Dowden has told the English Cricket Board (ECB) to “think again” about their decision to suspend Robinson. Politicians clearly systematically don’t value women or ethnic minorities. Dowden’s comments subconsciously sets a standard for organisations across the country that they don’t have to take seriously complaints about racism or sexual harassment. And that is dangerous.

If Johnson or Dowden did care about online abuse, they would support the ECB’s decision instead of trying to meddle. They would support their constituents and potential voters and instead of focusing on the reaction, they would focus on the abuse. Maybe Johnson feels uneasy about this, given his record of political incorrectness. You can see this with his back and forth support of footballers to take the knee before games. But that’s exactly why Johnson can speak out. He knows the chaos these mindless comments cause. He should know what pain and embarrassment they can cause for both sides. And he could bring together some much-needed healing and respect between communities. Maybe even gain some votes.

Gower’s comments remind me of Madeleine Albright’s quote, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”. I wonder whether this should be updated. There is a special place in hell for people who don’t help other people. The last year has shown us that people support people. This should be true whether they’re online or in person because the impact of the abuse is the same. That Johnson and Dowden can’t see this, shows their lack of care for anyone not male and pale.

Carol Jones

Carol Jones writes 'The Good Grief Notes' column for the Oxford Blue, where she also writes about culture and women's rights. She studies DPhil Music Composition at St Catherine's and works as a freelance composer.