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Photo: EyeEm / Galina

Building a Safer Online World With Digital Citizenship

  • Viewpoint
  • By Seyi Akiwowo (Glitch)
  • 1 November 2021

Seyi Akiwowo of Glitch - a charity committed to ending the abuse of marginalized people online - explores how digital citizenship can help build a more inclusive online world

We’ve all spent more time online in the last 18 months, making the mission for safe online spaces even more pressing. As the pandemic has driven us to rely on the online space for work, socializing and exercise, issues around our safety in the online space have become more and more pertinent. In the wake of the murder of Sir David Amess MP, whistleblowing at Facebook and renewed scrutiny of the Online Safety Bill, issues around online hate and abuse are once again making headlines. This is great attention - but how do we channel this energy to ensuring that our online spaces are genuinely safe for all of us?  It’s vital that we don’t oversimplify the causes of and solutions to online abuse. As we set out here, restricting or banning online anonymity will only serve to create yet another issue.  Instead we need to focus on and invest in education and public health approaches to online abuse. These approaches include what makes a person a good digital citizen. 

At Glitch, our aim is to end online abuse by awakening a generation of digital citizens: people who are equipped to interact positively, critically and competently in all digital spaces. Our joint report with the End Violence Against Women (EVAW) Coalition, The Ripple Effect, bought to life the gendered impact of Covid-19: nearly half of women and non-binary people reported experiencing online abuse since the beginning of the pandemic. Gender was the most often cited reason for online abuse. Only a few respondents received training from their employer on how to stay safe online. Much of this abuse took place on the main social media platforms, despite claims that the safety of these platforms has been improved.

Online abuse has a range of consequences. The Ripple Effect data shows that 77% of respondents modified their behaviour online as a result of the abuse, and that 72% reported feeling differently about using social media and technology. For women and non-binary individuals of colour, the effect was even more pronounced, with the figures rising to 87.5% and 78% respectively. Abuse in the online space affects mental health; it affects future interactions; it influences whether individuals can participate in politics, in sport, in public conversations, and in society in general. For example: women and young political candidates are more likely to experience harassment, which can stop MPs from standing for re-election. Black and Asian women MPs receive 35% more abuse than other groups of MPs. When essential voices are silenced in this way, online abuse becomes a significant threat to democracy. 

Ending online abuse, then, is not solely about surviving in online spaces - it is about being able to participate fully, and to flourish, in online spaces, and in our society

How will digital citizenship help us address these issues? It will create a society where everyone who engages with digital technology can do so in a way that’s safe, responsible and respectful, that doesn’t inflict harm. Being a digital citizen means understanding our individual and collective roles and responsibilities when navigating the online space - which is, after all, the new public square. It will give us new and necessary skills in identifying mis-, dis- and mal-information; in supporting those targeted with online harm; and in understanding the tools and resources we have in order to help decrease our exposure to harmful behaviours. Digital citizenship equips us to be the citizens our new and evolving world needs. 

And what does that mean in practice? At Glitch we believe there are four components to digital citizenship:

  • Digital Self-Defence 
  • Digital Self-Care 
  • Being an online active bystander - we have a free guide to online active bystander intervention here
  • Calling for tech accountability 

As we draw lessons and learn from the various lockdowns and the increased use of online spaces and technology, we must also review the impact of online abuse. Many things were unpredictable over the last 18 months, but the rise in online harms wasn’t. Now with renewed scrutiny and media attention we need investment in education at all levels. We need legislation that centres the lived experience of women and minoritized communities. Painting tech companies as the bad guys will only go so far.  We need tech accountability and we need digital citizens, who know their individual and collective roles and responsibilities when navigating the online space.