The world’s social media giants admit they can’t protect women online

Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and YouTube are still trying to get their anti-harassment measures right.
Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and YouTube are still trying to get their anti-harassment measures right.
Image: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic
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Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and YouTube made their first joint commitment to curb the harassment women face on their platforms, according to The World Wide Web Foundation. The social media giants pledged on July 1 to give users more granular control over who interacts with their posts and improve their reporting processes—for example, by giving users the ability to track their harassment reports during each stage of review.

The promises are the culmination of an advocacy campaign from the World Wide Web Foundation, which wrote an open letter to the CEOs of the four companies signed by 212 activists, academics, politicians, journalists, and civil society leaders. “Four of the world’s biggest tech platforms have worked with the Web Foundation to adopt a bold set of commitments to tackle online abuse and improve women’s safety on their platforms, marking the first time there has been cross-industry collaboration on ways companies can address the issue,” it said in a statement.

Each of these companies has individually made similar commitments in the past. Facebook unveiled anti-harassment tools designed to help users avoid unwanted friend requests and messages in 2017. That year, Twitter strengthened its reporting tools and tightened its rules around non-consensual nudity in a bid to make women safer online. YouTube vowed to step up its anti-harassment enforcement in 2019, and TikTok gave users more power to report, block, or delete comments on their videos last year.

But while those measures may have helped, it’s not clear they have meaningfully reduced online abuse. Harassment remains far worse for women, people of color, and other marginalized groups, according to researchers. More than a third of women surveyed by The Economist last year reported personally experiencing abuse online. Black women were 84% more likely than white women to be targeted for harassment, according to an Amnesty International review of tweets received by 778 journalists and politicians.

A playbook for curbing harassment

Today’s announcement is a collective admission from the world’s leading social giants that their efforts haven’t been enough to protect women online (or other users who might receive harassment, for that matter). But in this week’s announcement, timed to coincide with the UN’s Generation Equality Forum in Paris, they’ve once again pledged to do better.

This time, the companies have the benefit of 11 prototyped features presented by the World Wide Web Foundation’s Tech Policy Design Lab.  Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and YouTube aren’t committed to implementing any of these proposals, specifically, but they offer clear blueprints for the kinds of tools the companies could roll out to meet their commitments.

Women who have experienced harassment collaborated with activists, academics, government officials, and representatives from tech companies to design tools that might have helped them when they were experiencing abuse online. They include a single button that would allow users who have gone unexpectedly viral to limit interactions with their posts with one click, a tool that would allow users to delegate the task of reporting harassment to trusted contacts, and an image recognition feature that would scour platforms for pictures of a user posted by other people and empower the user to review and report abusive posts.

The World Wide Web Foundation has pledged to publish an annual report tracking the social giants’ progress against their commitments to improve reporting and give users more power to curate who they interact with online. The group says it will test the new tools the social media platforms come up with, hold them to concrete timetables for releasing those tools, and push the companies to release transparent data about the impact the tools are having on harassment. “With their resources and reach, these four companies have the power to curb this abuse and improve online experiences for hundreds of millions of women and girls,” Web Foundation Senior Policy Manager Azmina Dhrodia said in a statement. “Now, they’ve had the chance to work together with leading experts from different sectors to co-create solutions that can lead to real, industry-wide change.”