OECD Forum 2019 Session: Social Media & Identities

May 16, 2019

This OECD Forum 2019 background note will be used to prepare speakers on the panel Social Media & Identities, taking place at the OECD headquarters from 10:00-11:45 on Monday, 20 May. Join the Forum Network to comment and help inform the upcoming debate and, whether you're with us in Paris or watching online, let us know what you think of the session!

The digital world is becoming our new public square where online platforms have a growing influence and impact on our lives. Social media is a powerful space where every single day, billions of women and men around the world engage to learn, connect, share, debate and advocate. It has given politicians, activists, journalists, writers and bloggers, as well as everyone who simply wants to express themselves, the power to make their voice heard and to positively impact the world together. 

However, the digital world has also brought anxiety, toxicity and abuse, and an environment where the people behind these actions often do not feel accountable for their words. The ease and speed with which content proliferates can have very negative and harmful impact, particularly for women and girls. According to a recent UN report on cyber violence against women and girls, one in ten women in Europe has experienced some kind of online abuse after the age of 15. Recent research, conducted by Amnesty International shows that women – specifically, female politicians and journalists in the United Kingdom and United States – received abusive messages every 30 seconds on Twitter in 2017. The research also exposes the intersectional nature of online abuse by highlighting that women of colour, women from ethnic or religious minorities, and women from the LGBT community receive most abuse. This phenomenon is considered to be very important as it shows how online abuse targets not only gender, race or sexual orientation, but focuses also on many other elements such as appearance or beliefs, and can have a profound impact on marginalised groups in our society. 

Other vulnerable groups, in particular youth and children, are highly affected and influenced by digital technology, which has become an integral part of their lives. Social media has not only transformed the way they communicate and connect, but it has also profoundly impacted their daily lives. There is widespread concern from parents, teachers, governments and young people themselves that the reliance on social media is exacerbating feelings of anxiety and depression, disturbing sleep patterns and leading to distorted body images and even suicide attempts. The OECD’s 2017 PISA survey indicates that extreme internet users (more than six hours a day) were most likely to have lower life satisfaction and wellbeing. The Prince’s Trust eBay Youth Index report for 2019 reveals that nearly half of young people feel “inadequate” and more anxious about their future when comparing their lives to their friends on social media. The ever-increasing presence of social media makes for a complicated backdrop for this generation, surprisingly amplifying group polarisation and feelings of loneliness, instead of connecting people. 

More research and action is needed to further understand how the online environment transcends the digital sphere, and what impact it has not only on human rights, but also on mental health. Amnesty International’s research found that 42% of the women in the United States and 36% in the United Kingdom felt that their physical safety was threatened after experiencing online harassment. Failure to tackle this urgent problem can actually lead to a culture of silence, forcing people to self-censor, limit their interactions and completely leave the digital world. Amnesty International’s research also shows that between 63% and 83% women made some changes to the way they used social media platforms, with 32% not posting content that expressed their opinion on certain issues. As a result, online abuse can have a serious, far-reaching impact on the way people, particularly women and individuals from marginalised communities, take part in public life; possible long-term effect on their representation in politics; and deepen societal inequality between genders in generations to come. 

If we want to ensure that everyone can effectively exercise their rights in our new public square, the digital world should be guided by rules that guarantee its safety and inclusiveness. “Turning off’ is not an option, especially for those who want to, or have to stay engaged online. Our online society is as real as our offline one, and we should guarantee that it is composed not only of consumers, but also of responsible users and creators who are aware of the risks, the impact they have on individuals, and the measures everyone can take in order to protect the others. However, tackling online risks requires not only a focus on education but also on resources, transparency and co-ordinated action from social media companies and governments; the latter can have a leading role in defining new steps and rules to protect better their users and help improve trust in online platforms. This session will focus on social media and its impacts – both online and offline – on individuals, particularly from vulnerable groups, and it will explore how to best ensure that the digital space is safe and inclusive for everyone. 

  • How can social media platforms and governments effectively work together to address online harassment? What kind of policy measures/legal and non-legal steps should be considered?
  • How can social media companies better address online abuse? What role should social media platforms play in defining better rules and practices?
  • How to guarantee better transparency in the fight against online harassment? Can we consider the end of online anonymity as an option?
  • How can we measure the extent of harmful content online? How to effectively define the categories of harmful content?
  • What tools should be considered to identify, investigate and respond adequately to reports of abuse in a transparent manner?

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Banner image: ROBIN WORRALL on Unsplash

Stilyana Tasheva

OECD Forum Programme Intern, OECD

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