“The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman…” said civil rights leader Malcolm X, more than 50 years ago. Speaking directly to Black women in Los Angeles on May 22, 1962, he asked the crowd: “Who taught you to hate the color of your skin? Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair?” In 2022 — where we still endure the ramifications of white supremacy — I wouldn’t be surprised if many of today’s Black women, globally, would answer with“social media.”
Black women are 84% more likely to be abused on social media than white women, according to a 2018 Amnesty International study. By 2020, further research by Glitch, a UK charity committed to ending the abuse of women and marginalised people online, found that online abuse against women, disproportionately impacts Black women, non-binary people and women from minoritised communities, all of whom were more likely to feel like their complaints to social media companies were not adequately addressed. Black women in the public eye bear the brunt of online trolling. This was witnessed back in 2017, when Amnesty found of the thousands of horrendous abuse (including rape and death threats) directed to female MPs on Twitter, over half were aimed at Britain’s first Black woman MP, Labour politician, Diane Abbott.
Seyi Akiwowo, 31, the founder of Glitch charity, knows all too well the resilience needed when being Black and visible online, as she tells Unbothered, she is not afraid to “block, mute and filter.” “I also love preemptive blocking,” says Akikowo. “If I’ve seen any account that has attacked Kelechi Okafor or Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu or any other Black woman visible online, I know they’re coming for me as well.”
A former politician, Akiwowo received a flood of abuse when a video of her speech at the European Parliament went viral in 2017, an experience that led to the creation of her charity. The CEO’s recently released bookHow To Stay Safe Online is a toolkit for aiding digital self-care and a guide to allyship. Released August 25, the book is both practical and personal, weaving Akiwowo’s personal stories, alongside interviews from influential voices in tech accountability and digital activism with tips for how we can all do our bit to make online spaces safer for everyone.
“How To Stay Safe Online was written for everybody,” Akiwowo tells Unbothered over the phone. “I wanted to inspire a generation of people to reclaim their online spaces, reclaiming their internet and pushing institutions, tech companies, and governments to do more for their digital rights.”
“I basically see this book as a helpful guide for anyone looking to support themselves online or support somebody else, whether your parent, sibling, teacher, employer, agent, or publicist, and you want to know how you can be there for your friend or your colleague, and help them build their online presence from a more secure and safe way,” she adds.
For the CEO and founder, it is significant that a book about online safety is written from a Black millennial woman’s perspective — especially given the widespread evidence around Black women and online abuse.
“My focus or container has always been women, particularly Black women because that’s the perspective I write from and I focus on because we are under-researched and we are under-resourced,” Akiwowo says.
“The reason why [How To Stay Safe Online] is centred around Black women and a Black feminist perspective is because women are most likely to be abused online. And therefore, if you focus on online safety measures for just white women or white men, you’re going to completely forget or erase the safety measures that are [specifically] needed for Black women,” she adds.
How To Stay Safe Online is a call to action to tech companies and government officials to listen to Black women, who have routinely called for improved online safety measures for a long time. Too long. A pertinent example scales back to 2014, when Black feminists predicted an alt-white threat online, per an investigation by Slate magazine, after Shafiqah Hudson saw a rise in Twitter trolls masquerading as women of colour to spread misinformation and discord. At the time Hudson brought the information to Twitter but the platform failed to respond. Taking matters into her own hands, Hudson created the hashtag #YourSlipIsShowing to drive out the fake and dangerous accounts.
“I think we as a society need to get better at listening to Black women full stop — our cultural norms, our behaviours, even our language,” says Akiwowo. “We all need to make spaces safer for Black women offline and online so that Black women are believed when they come forward with their stories and their experiences.”
“I definitely don’t believe the responsibility should fall on the hands of the most minoritised to try and keep themselves safe,” she adds. “Because that’s all we keep doing. We keep finding ways to stay safe in the club, on public transport and now online.”
The “we” Akiwowo refers to is of course women and non-binary people who are more often the victims of gender-based violence on and offline. With that said, is online safety a feminist issue?
“It’s a human rights issue,” she says. “I think when we talk about online safety as a feminist issue, yes, we need to be talking about gender-based violence but we need to be talking about freedom of expression and how women being able to be joyful online, and how online violence curtails their rights to expression.”
Akiwowo certainly isn’t the first — and she won’t be the last — to call on tech giants (or as she describes the “tech bros in Silicon Valley”) and the government to do more to ensure safety for everyone on social media platforms and across the internet in general. Akiwowo’s book is released in advance of the UK government’s release of its much-awaited, debated and criticised Online Safety Bill, a new legislation to deal with online abuse. The bill, which has yet to become law in the UK, aims to regulate social platforms and criminal offences such as cyber flashing and rape threats. However, for Akiwowo, what’s been proposed “isn’t enough.”
“[The Online Safety Bill] did not at all mention or cite women, gender, or gender-based violence issues, so it was not going to be a bill fit for purpose, because it wasn’t going to address the issue that 50% of the population go through online,” states Akiwowo. Through Glitch, Akiwowo and team supplied written evidence to legislation makers stating that the Online Safety Bill needs to be strengthened to serve those “disproportionately affected by abuse.”
It is of course not just the government’s responsibility to make the online world safer for its users, as Akiwowo illustrates, tech companies aren’t subject to some form of regulation. Akiwowo asks, “why should tech companies be the exception to that rule?”
“We’ve got tech bros, the majority white men in Silicon Valley, creating fast tech without thinking about safety in mind without thinking about people in mind and inclusive, that’s a real imbalance of power. And that’s really, really dangerous and harmful,” she explains.
“I don’t think tech companies and social media companies created patriarchy, I don’t think they created white supremacy,” stresses Akiwowo. “But they certainly have not helped dismantle it, to minimise it, but they have helped to exacerbate it, they’ve given more tools to white supremacists to have a platform and to groom vulnerable disgruntled people for what I would call extremist groups.”
As the UK government and tech giants continue their push and pull towards meaningful and practical online legislation, what can women, especially Black women and other maginalised people, do to stay safe online in the meantime? For Akiwowo, the answer is digital self-care.
“I think as a society, we’ve become too tolerant to online bullying and online violence because like we’re like, oh, well, I was bullied at school I went through and I survived. And that’s just not a community self-care value I think we should be having,” she says.
“I always remind people that it’s okay to take a pause and take a step back.” Akiwowo continues.“[In the book] I talk about curating your timeline online, your timeline is for you. And again, it’s difficult for a lot of us who use timeline social media platforms for work and pleasure. I talk about thinking about how you can separate the two because the algorithm has a way of feeding you things that you might not be emotionally ready to see.”
When most people can admit to a co-dependent relationship with their phones and/or social media platforms, we all know the answer to avoiding online trolling isn’t just, “logging off.” So, what keeps Akiwowo remaining in spaces she is deeply critical of?
“I love tech!” she exclaims. “I’m often misunderstood as a tech hater, or a kind of naysayer, and it’s not the case. I’m a ‘90s baby. I was on MySpace and on Bebo, and those are my safe spaces. I met my boyfriend through Hinge because of tech. So I do still find there are elements of joy. And I hope through this book, we are having more conversations about how we can have more joy online — more Black joy and soft life online! — and how tech can aid rather than being a barrier to that.”
‘How To Stay Safe Online: the first intersectional digital self-care toolkit for developing online resilience and allyship’ by Seyi Akiwowo is out now.
My affinity to Cuba is in large part informed by my personal trips to the island. It started out as a quest to document Cuba’s underground music scene and unique preservation of hip-hop culture. In the age of President Barack Obama and the thawing of U.S.-Cuba travel restrictions, it was finally made possible for someone like me, a Washington Heights-born Dominican-American, to physically make that voyage. But no U.S. government […]