Online harassment toward women

Author: Martha R. Villabona works at Subdirección General de Cooperación Territorial e Innovación Educativa of the Spanish Ministry of Education and Vocational Training, where she coordinates the area of multiple literacies.

Foto: Mary Eineman / Unsplash

The seemingly unlimited possibilities of citizen participation in social networks are affected by the polarization of debate, the aggressive style of communication and the silencing effect of online harassment or cyberbullying 1. This has emerged since social networks appeared and became communication tools and occurs more easily because they allow anonymity and freedom of expression, making many people more vulnerable to online harassment because of their ethnicity, gender or ideology. Online harassment constitutes intentional and repeated harm done by one person or group of people through electronic means to another or others who cannot easily defend themselves 2.

The widespread use of mobile devices means that online harassment is easy to provoke because it can be done from a distant location and can be continuous in time and space. Whereas traditional bullying can happen in a single location such as school or work, cyberbullying can move to any place at any time. The immediate consequence is that the bullied person can never escape from his or her bully whom he or she may not even know.

Online harassment has among its objectives to provoke fear in a person or a group and its immediate effect is silencing, as people refrain from expressing their opinions or become more cautious about doing so. Gender online harassment is one example. There was a study (1) in which surveys were conducted to women (783 in 2013 and 2443 in 2016) and men (751 in 2013 and 2611 in 2016) to find out whether they had received any nasty or hateful comments on social networks, the result was that men who reported having experienced such harassment made up 6.8% (2013) and 20.6% (2016) vs. 6.4% (2013) and 14% (2016) of women. It was found that men suffered more online harassment than women for expressing their opinions, especially political ones. This harassment consists in the fact that they receive more unpleasant or hateful messages in relation to these opinions. It is also true that men are more harassed because they share their opinions more publicly. If women receive less harassment, it is probably, because they are less active in networks.

The same team analyzed the silencing effect of online harassment. They looked at harassment that occurred for voicing an opinion and harassment that arose from being who you were based on gender. The result was that harassment for being who you were, was more likely to silence than harassment for what people thought. In this case, women were more affected than men by messages that were directed at them for being women rather than for what they thought. This effect is probably due to the level of aggressiveness of the words, tone and style of the messages.

Likewise, women who participate in social networks perceive the risk involved in belonging to a gender that has historically been excluded in many areas. As a result, they are more cautious about expressing their opinions, even silencing themselves.

A 2020 Pew Research Center survey 3 of 10,093 American adults found a 6% increase in Sexual Harassment since 2017 when last surveys were conducted. This data reflected that 41% of participants had experienced some form of online harassment 75% occurred in Social Networks. Approximately half of women (47%) reported experiencing harassment because of their gender, and 33% of women under the age of 35 had experienced online sexual harassment.

Another study conducted in Italy 4 analyzing online hate speech on Twitter found that the most frequent targets are women, immigrants, gays and lesbians. From over 2.5 million tweets collected, they found around 18% had negative content against at least one of the six target groups (women, immigrants, gays and lesbians, Muslims, Jews and people with disabilities). Women were the ones most frequently targeted (60.4%), followed by immigrants, (10.4%) gays and lesbians with (10.3%). While someone could argue that cyberbullying does not represent society’s hate speech, the researchers showed that the targets of this type of speech coincided with those of the intolerance report carried out by the Italian government.

This situation has led feminist figures and other movements to promote safe spaces on the net for people to freely express themselves freely. There are Facebook groups or blogs led by feminist authors that allow them to share reflections and interact among themselves and their followers, amplifying their ideas and generating campaigns against gender-based violence.

The intensification of online harassment of women is likely a response to the increased visibility of feminist figures and movements in the media. This has led to increased aggression against them to the point of silencing them. In reality, this type of harassment is a reflection of an entrenched power structure in which women occupy an inferior position.


  1. Nadim M & Fladmoe A. (2021). Silencing Women? Gender and Online Harassment. Social Science Computer Review, 39 (2):245-258. doi: 10.1177/0894439319865518
  2. Smith, P., Mahdavi, J., Carvalho, M., Fisher, S., Russell, S. & Tippett, N. (2008). Cyberbullying: its nature and impact in secondary school pupils. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 49(4). doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2007.01846.x
  3. Vogels, E. (2020). The state of online harassment.
  4. Lingiardi, V., Carone, N., Semeraro, G., Musto, C., D’Amico, M. & Silvia Brena (2019) Mapping Twitter hate speech towards social and sexual minorities: a lexicon-based approach to semantic content analysis, Behaviour & Information Technology, 39 (7), 711-721. doi: 10.1080/0144929X.2019.1607903

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