More than two dozen rights groups including Amnesty International and AlgorithmWatch urged EU lawmakers Thursday to penalize firms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter if they fail to crack down on abuse targeting women.
“The reluctance of social media platforms to take decisive actions to reduce online gender-based violence has real impact — not only on the victims themselves, but also on democracy, freedom of expression, and gender equality,” the groups wrote in a joint letter.
The call from 26 groups comes as Facebook's top executives are being quizzed by the U.S. Senate on the company's awareness of their platforms being used to traffic women and the platforms' harmful effects on teenage girls, and the company's apparent lack of action to tackle those issues.
In Germany, the leading female candidate for the Greens, Annalena Baerbock, was a frequent target of sexist attacks during the country's election campaign, which some suggest may have undermined her campaign.
The activists are hoping that their cause is picked up by European policymakers in Brussels, who are currently working on a law meant to force tech companies to tackle illegal content, and be more transparent about their algorithms and the way they moderate content.
Representatives in the European Parliament have already introduced amendments to the bill, known as the Digital Services Act, that would make platforms responsible for stopping explicit images and videos being shared without consent, known colloquially as revenge porn, and remove illegal content that targets women faster.
But activists also want to force social media companies to tackle their algorithms, which they believe amplify and facilitate toxic behavior that puts women at risk.
"The scale of violence and abuse against women online is pushing more and more women to turn away from social media,” said Katarzyna Szymielewicz, co-founder of digital rights association Panoptykon, and a signatory of the letter. "The platforms have shown repeatedly that they can't be trusted to fix themselves, which is why we so urgently need strong obligations on them in the Digital Services Act."
In Europe, almost three in four women have been the victims of harassment, hate speech, violent threats, and revenge porn last year, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.
As a result, "young women report being discouraged from seeking leadership roles," said Kristina Wilfore, co-founder of NGO ShePersisted, which is a signatory of the letter, and a professor on disinformation at George Washington University. "Women are self-censoring or totally disengaged from social media.”
In July, Facebook, Google, TikTok, and Twitter committed to revising their platforms to prevent women from seeing harmful content directed at them and more easily report abuse.
But troves of Facebook's internal documents uncovered by the Wall Street Journal showed that the company has been ineffective in addressing many of the harms on its platforms.
“It is naïve to appeal to corporate self-regulation and responsibility. The companies will always put their profit-driven motivations above the common good,” said German MEP Alexandra Geese (Greens), one of the lawmakers working on the EU's bill.
Activists want social media companies to reduce the risks their platforms pose to women by adapting their content distribution and advertising algorithms, features, terms and conditions. They also want the platforms to be independently audited, in addition to requiring platforms to allow researchers access to their data related to their actions to protect women.
They’re also pushing for stiff penalties if the platforms fail to comply.
“This is trying to limit the damage that has already been done by companies through the design of their platforms,” said Danish MEP Karen Melchior, who introduced similar safeguards with other members from her liberal party, Renew Europe, and supports the call.
The Commission, which proposed the bill, has insisted that the rules were meant as a broader content moderation framework to be complemented by specific rules on terrorism, child abuse, and gender violence.
The EU’s executive body is expected to publish gender-specific rules in December.
Wilfore, the professor, doesn't want to wait.
“The idea of waiting until we figure out the perfect legislation when we now have the opportunity to introduce these provisions that will give us some leverage over some of the most powerful companies in the world would be crazy.”