Forum 2019 Reflections: Social Media & Identities

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Go to the profile of Stilyana Tasheva
Oct 14, 2019
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This article is part of the Forum Network series on the New Societal Contract and reflects on the OECD Forum 2019 session Social Media & Identities, capturing the discussions, ideas and solutions debated in ParisThe Forum Network is the place for you to debate policies that can shape the issues and challenges of our time with other experts and engaged citizensJoin for free using your email or social media accounts to share your stories, ideas and expertise in the comments!


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. Rebekah Tromble, Assistant Professor, Institute of Political Science, Leiden University, The Netherlands underlined the fundamental disconnect between our digital and analogue selves: “We simply have to recognise that the online abuse and harassment have the same consequences as they do offline.”

Rebekah Tromble, Assistant Professor, Institute of Political Science, Leiden University, The Netherlands

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 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.

Find out more about the OECD's work on LGBTI inclusiveness

Find out more about the OECD's work on LGBTI inclusiveness

While herself the victim of online abuse, Eun Jung Bae, YouTuber, Korea; Member, Escape the Corset, acknowledged that, as with many forms of technology, “Social media platforms are not bad inherently, but the use that is made of them can become bad”. In her view, the underlying issues driving negative, aggressive and violent behaviours must be brought to the fore / in the public eye: “We need to understand why some people are pushing other people to hate online, and have a wide public debate”.

Eun Jung Bae, YouTuber, Korea; Member, Escape the Corset

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. 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 well-being. 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.

How Inequalities are Driving a Global Youth Mental Health Crisis by James DaCosta, Y7 Delegate, United Kingdom

How Inequalities are Driving a Global Youth Mental Health Crisis by James DaCosta, Y7 Delegate, United Kingdom

More research and action is needed to further understand how the online environment transcends the digital sphere. 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. Its 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.

Read the OECD report How's Life in the Digital Age? Opportunities and Risks of the Digital Transformation for People's Well-being

How's Life in the Digital Age? Opportunities and Risks of the Digital Transformation for People's Well-being

According to Ms. Tromble, more research is needed but also broader engagement with academic stakeholders to design the right responses at speed: “We are building technology without integrating core social scientific understanding of its individual and social implications…if we brought in richer insight from those who have studied and directly experienced technical engineering we could reach solutions that would be much more effective, much more quickly”.

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But solutions without implementation at scale fall far short of addressing problems. Mary Goudie, Founder, 30% Club; Member, House of Lords, United Kingdom, United Kingdom, drawing on her experience of government, recognised that state regulation can be slow moving in the volatile world of online technologies. She proposed that action from within the private sector, calling on social media investors and shareholders to use their influence to encourage top-down change and the platforms themselves to self-regulate.

Mary Goudie, Founder, 30% Club; Member, House of Lords, United Kingdom, United Kingdom

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.


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Ultimately, accountability lies with all of us who use the internet to make it a space that is safe, inclusive and representative of a positive society as well as an opportunity to offer knowledge and opportunities to all. Seyi Akiwowo, Founder and Executive Director, Glitch, who was elected as the youngest black female councillor in East London, United Kingdom at the age of 23, summed up our collective cyberspace duties, both now and in the future: by calling for investment in digital citizenship: “Rights come with responsibilities. We need to train the next generation of young people to be responsible online, to be active bystanders”. 

Seyi Akiwowo, Founder and Executive Director, Glitch

Related Topics

OECD Forum 2019 Privacy & Cybersecurity Child Well-being Health

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Go to the profile of Stilyana Tasheva

Stilyana Tasheva

Former OECD Forum Programme Intern, OECD

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