A new UN report claims that “73 percent of women have been exposed to online violence.” To combat this alleged epidemic of sexist mayhem on the web, it calls for draconian measures—including more government supervision and censorship of the internet. Before anyone acts on these UN recommendations, let’s check out a few facts.
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The UN report insists the internet is an unsafe place for women. There is a lot of viciousness on the web—including threats of violence—but is it as pervasive as the UN Report suggests—and are women actually at greater risk than men?
Let’s start with the report’s showcase statistic that “73 percent of women have experienced online violence.” Where is the research to back it up? The claim is footnoted. But the footnote takes you to another UN publication that says nothing about online violence.
After a few calls and an email, the lead author of the UN report, Nihdi Tandon, had her office send me the source. It was the web site of a small volunteer group called HaltABUSE that helps people cope with online threats and stalking. The group reported that, of the 349 people who sought their help in 2010, 73 percent were women and 27 percent were men. (The women’s percentage was lower for more recent years.)
And that, believe it or not, was the United Nation’s “source” for its disturbing claim that “73 percent of the women on the internet are victims of abuse.” Imagine if I claimed that, because 73 percent of those who watch the Factual Feminist are women, therefore 73 percent of the world’s women watch my videos. I wish it were true. But the rules of logic intervene.
In 2014 Pew Research carried out a survey of internet users. It found that lots of people are hassled, insulted, and called names online—slightly more men than women. More women than men are sexually harassed (7% women and 4% men), but men are the primary targets of threats (10% men compared to 6% women).
The Pew findings suggest that, overall, men face as much or more abuse than women. Another study by a professional polling organization found that males aged 19 are the group most likely to be affected by trolling or bullying among teenagers.
But the bogus 73% statistic was headlined by TIME, highlighted in Washington Post –and repeated on countless new sites—including several that attract a lot of young readers such as MTV.com and Teen Vogue.
The report is packed with dubious statistics and bizarre pronouncements. On page 48 we learn that “Cyber-touch is recognized as equally harmful as a physical touch.” Recognized by whom? Cyber touch is a metaphor—physical touch is not.
In another section, the report speaks of “recent research on how violent video games are turning children, mostly boy, into killing zombies.” The footnote leads to a rambling screed by a disciple of the infamous Lyndon LaRouch.
Not only is the report riddled with mistakes—its proposals are totalitarian. It urges governments to use their powers to license only those internet providers and search engines that “supervise” user content. This is precisely what China does to censor its people online; except instead of subverting the communist party, the crime would now be mocking a woman.
In the US, freedom of expression is guaranteed by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court routinely blocks government officials from censoring even highly offensive speech. The internet can be rough—and threats of violence or stalking and can be terrifying—but these are crimes and they are legally actionable wherever they occur. Beyond that, a more civil and mannerly internet should be a matter of private norms—and many internet sites are promoting that. Government supervision of conversation is the last thing that any of us, male or female, need.
Fact-checking the UN: Is the Internet dangerous for women?
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