Women have been targeted in their schools and workplaces where they have had no choice but to participate online. Research from Ryerson University’s Infoscape Research Lab examined early trends in Zoom-bombing — a form of harassment where the attacker posts offensive and shocking content to disrupt virtual meeting spaces. It found that most Zoom-bombings that were posted on YouTube were racist (25 percent), misogynistic (43 percent), homophobic (14 percent) or otherwise offensive. They were typically directed at female teachers’ classrooms. As this disturbing trend spread, women and other equality-seeking groups demanded that companies like Zoom develop safeguards and provide instruction on how to protect their workplaces from discriminatory online harassment.
The discriminatory nature of these attacks is nothing new. In 2018, Amnesty International’s Toxic Twitter report examined harassing tweets directed at women on Twitter, highlighting how women — in particular, LBTQ+ women, Black women and women of colour — face higher rates of abuse online, and face more attacks that focus their gender and other identity factors.
It is fair to say that women in general, beyond those interviewed for Amnesty International’s report, were already dissatisfied with large social media companies’ content moderation policies and procedures. More recently, with these companies reducing the number of content moderation employees at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, their frustrations were only intensified.
Zoom-bombing and other online forms of harassment cause severe emotional distress, heighten risks to women’s safety and deter women from engaging in online spaces. However, going offline to avoid abuse is not a realistic option today when almost all aspects of life have a digital component.