WMC Speech Project

Online Abuse 101


First, what exactly is online abuse?

Online abuse includes a diversity of tactics and malicious behaviors ranging from sharing embarrassing or cruel content about a person to impersonation, doxing, stalking and electronic surveillance to the nonconsensual use of photography and violent threats. The online harassment of women, sometimes called Cybersexism or cybermisogyny, is specifically gendered abuse targeted at women and girls online. It incorporates sexism, racism, religious prejudice, homophobia and transphobia.

The purpose of harassment differs with every incidence, but usually includes wanting to embarrass, humiliate, scare, threaten, silence, extort or, in some instances, encourages mob attacks or malevolent engagements.


Tactics are wide ranging. They are sometimes legal, but harmful and consequential. They may legal, but violate a particular platform’s guidelines and terms of service. Some, but not all, are illegal, including, but not limited to Child Pornography, Copyright Infringements, Data Theft, Defamation, Extortion, Intentional Infliction of Emotional Harm, Libel, Privacy Infringements, Sexual Harassment, Sexual Surveillance, Stalking and True Threats.

Cross platform harassment
When a harasser, or group of harassers, deliberately sabotages or invades multiple online spaces for the purposes of harassing a target. Cross-platform harassment is very effective because users are currently unable to report this scope and context of the harassment when they contact platforms, each of which will only consider the harassment happening on their own sites.
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Cyber-exploitation, Nonconsensual Photography or “Revenge Porn”
The distribution of sexually graphic images without the consent of the subject of the images. The abuser obtains images or videos in the course of a prior relationship, or hacks into the victim’s computer, social media accounts or phone. Women make up more than 95 percent of reported victims. The unauthorized sharing of sexualized images is still not illegal in the majority of US states. Twenty-two states now have laws on the books and proposed national legislation is being drafted. (You can check your state here). is defined as the non-consensual distribution and publication of intimate photos and videos.
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A form of direct harassment in which a target’s former name is revealed against their wishes for the purposes of harm. This technique is most commonly used to out members of the LGTBQIA community who may have changed their birth names for any variety of reasons, including to avoid professional discrimination and physical danger.
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Coordinated attempts at defamation take place when a person, or, sometimes, organized groups deliberately flood social media and review sites with negative and defamatory information.
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DOS stands for “denial-of-service,” an attack that makes a website or network resource unavailable to its users.
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The unauthorized retrieving and publishing, often by hacking, of a person’s personal information, including, but not limited to, full names, addresses, phone numbers, emails, spouse and children names, financial details. “Dox” is a slang version of “documents” or .doc. Causing fear, stress and panic is the objective of doxing, even when perpetrators think or say that their objective is “harmless.”
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Electronically enabled financial abuse
The use of the internet and other forms of technology to exert financial pressure on a target, usually a woman involved in intimate partner abuse. This might include, for example, denying access to online accounts, manipulating credit information to create negative scores and identity theft.
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False accusations of blasphemy
Women face online threats globally, but they run a unique risk in conservative religious countries, where, in blasphemy is against the law and where honor killings are a serious threat. Accusing someone of blasphemy can become, itself, an act of violence.
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A flood of vitriolic and hostile messages including threats, insults, slurs and profanity.
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Gender-based Slurs and Harassment
Name-calling is common online. Gendered harassment, however, involves the use of words, insults, profanity and, often, images to communicate hostility towards girls and women because they are women. Typically, harassers resort to words such as “bitch,” “slut,” “whore,” or “cunt” and include commentary on women’s physical appearances.
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Google Bombing
The deliberate optimization of malicious information and web sites online so that when people search for a target they immediately see defamatory content. In 2012, for example, Bettina Wulff, the wife of Germany’s then president, sued Google because the company’s autocomplete search function perpetuated rumors that she was once a prostitute.
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Grooming and Predation
Online grooming is when a person using social media to deliberate cultivates an emotional connection with a child in order to sexually abuse or exploit that child.
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Hate Speech
Hate speech has no uniform legal definition. Online, this means that every social media platform has it’s own unique definition . As a baseline, however, hate speech is language or imagery that denigrates, insults, threatens, or targets and individual or groups of people on the basis of their identity – gender, , based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits. There is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment. Hate speech usually has specific, discriminatory harms rooted in history and usually employs words, action and the use of images meant to deliberately shame, annoy, scare, embarrass, humiliate, denigrate, or threaten another person. Most legal definitions of harassment take into consideration the intent of the harasser. This, however, fails to translate usefully in the case of cyberharassment, the use of the Internet, electronic and mobile applications for these purposes. In the case of technology enabled harassment and abuse, intent can be difficult to prove and diffuse. For example, most laws do not currently consider third party communications to be harassing. So, whereas the law understands sending someone a threatening message for the purposes of extortion, it does not understand the non-consensual sharing of sexual images to someone other than the subject of the photograph illegal or hateful.
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Identity Theft and Online Impersonation
As defined by the Department of Justice, identity theft includes, “crimes in which someone wrongfully obtains and uses another person’s personal data in some way that involves fraud or deception, typically for economic gain.” The law applies to any person or entity who impersonates another person on the Internet with the “intent to obtain a benefit or injure or defraud another.” Many states distinguish this from impersonation, in which a person creates an account, website or ad using a person’s name and address with the intention of harming another person. In 2013, for example, a jury convicted 32-year-old Michael Johnson of more than 80 counts related to his having impersonated his ex-wife online. He had purchased online ads and connected with would-be johns, posing, as his wife. He posted rape fantasies inviting men to kick down her door and have sex with her. In addition to sharing prices for sex with her, he also included sex with her three daughters, and with the toddler boy that the couple had together. The abuse continued when he contacted one of the daughters’ school, posting a message to the school’s website in her name, reading, “I will have sex with the teachers in return for passing grades.” As many as 50 men a day showed up at the woman’s home. She eventually moved her family to another state. Other cases similarly involving impersonation, involving false fantasies of violent gang rape, are commonly used as part of ongoing intimate violence. The difference between these two tactics is that identity theft benefits the perpetrator, while impersonation results in a distinct harm to another person.
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IRL Attacks
In Real Life Attacks describe incidents where online abuse either moves into the “real” world or is already part of an ongoing stalking or intimate partner violence interaction. IRL trolling can also mean simply trying to instill fear by letting a target know that the abuser knows their address or place of employment.
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Mob Attacks/CyberMobs
Hostile mobs include hundreds, sometimes thousands of people, systematically harassing a target. #Slanegirl, a hashtag that was used for the trending global public shaming of a teenage girl filmed performing fellatio, is one example. Attacks on public figures like Anita Sarkeesian or Caroline Criado-Perez have been conducted by cybermobs.
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Rape Videos
Videos of rapes in progress that are subsequently used to shame or extort, or are sold as nonconsensual porn. These images are sometimes used to populate online spaces created for sharing them, cyber-cesspools whose sole purpose is to deprive people of dignity by humiliating, and harassing them. In India, rape videos are part of what law enforcement has described as a thriving “revenge porn economy.” They are used to blackmail, shame and extort. The US and UK have seen multiple publicized cases of teenage girls, whose rapes were filmed and shared, commit suicide.
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Retaliation Against Supporters of Victims
Online abusers will often threaten to or engage in harassing their target’s family members, friends, employers or community of supporters.
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Sexual Objectification
Harassers frequently objectify their targets, including through the use of manipulated photographs and sexually explicit descriptions of their bodies. Girls and women’s photographs are often used without their consent and manipulated so that they appear in pornographic scenes or used in memes.
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Shock and Grief Trolling
Targeting vulnerable people by using the names and images of lost ones to create memes, websites, fake Twitter accounts or Facebook pages. Feminist writer Lindy West has described how harassers set up Twitter accounts using a stolen photograph of her recently deceased father. The name on the account was a play on his name and a reference to his death. “Embarrassed father of an idiot,” the bio read. It cited his location as, “Dirt hole in Seattle”.
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Spying and Sexual Surveillance
Most people think of spying and surveillance in terms of governments spying on citizens, however, women are frequently illegally (and legally) surveilled. This happens in their apartments; in changing rooms; department stores; supermarket bathrooms; on public stairways and subway platforms; in sports arenas and locker rooms; in police stations and in classrooms while they teach. The minimizing expression, “Peeping Tom,” is particularly insufficient given the impact of the nature, scale and amplification of the Internet on the power of stolen images and recordings to be used in harmful ways.
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Stalking and Stalking by Proxy
Justice Department records reveal that 70 percent of those stalked online are women and more than 80 percent of cyber-stalking defendants are male.
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Sexting/Abusive Sexting
Sexting is the consensual electronic sharing of naked or sexual photographs. This is different, however, from the nonconsensual sharing of the same images. While sexting is often demonized as dangerous, the danger and infraction is actually resident in the violation of privacy and consent that accompanies the sharing of images without the subject’s consent. For example, while teenage boys and girls sext at the same rates, boys are between two and three times more likely to share images that they are sent.
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A form of gender-based bullying often targeting teenage girls. Slut-shaming, stalking, the use of nonconsensual photography and sexual surveillance frequently overlap, amplifying impact on targets. Amanda Todd, Rehtaeh Parsons, Audrie Potts, Felicia Garcia, Tyler Clementi, Rachel Ehmke, Steubenville’s Jane Doe and Jada are people who were targeted by combinations of these tactics.
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Deliberately tricking authorities into responding to a false emergency situation at a specific address. The term comes from “SWAT” (Special Weapons and Tactics), a branch of the US police that uses militarized techniques, equipment and firearms to breach targeted sites. Harassers will report a serious threat or emergency, eliciting a law enforcement response that might include the use of weapons and possibility of being killed or hurt.
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Rape and death threats frequently coincide with sexist, racist commentary. While online threats may not pass current legal tests for what constitutes a “true threat,” they do generate anxiety and alter the course of a person’s life.
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While not traditionally thought of as a form of online harassment and abuse, trafficking involves multiple types of electronically-enabled abuse. Social media is used by traffickers to sell people whose photographs they share, without their consent, often including photographs of their abuse of women as an example to others. Seventy-six percent of trafficked persons are girls and women and the Internet is now a major sales platform.
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Unsolicited Pornography
Sending unsolicited pornography, violent rape porn gifs or photographs in which a target’s photograph has been sexualized. For example, in 2003, the website for UNIFEM, the United Nation’s Development Fund for Women, was stolen online by a pornographer who populated the site with violent sexual imagery. More recently, editors at Jezebel, an online magazine, reported that an individual or individuals were posting gifs of violent pornography in the comments and discussion section of stories daily. Writers at Jezebel, almost all women, were required to review comments sections daily. Women politicians, writers, athletes, celebrities and more have their photographs electronically manipulated for the purposes of creating non consensual pornography and of degrading them publicly.
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Isn’t this “just bullying”?

An act of bullying is defined by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society as hostile acts or behaviors that share three characteristics: a) they are intentional; b) they involves a power imbalance between an aggressor (individual or group) and a victim; c) they are repetitive in nature and sustained.[i] While this definition provides an excellent framework, definitions can and do differ greatly and don’t necessarily align with academic and research definitions. Legal definitions of bullying and harassment vary by jurisdiction and the term bullying most frequently involves the targeting of children and teens. For example, only 16 US states define bullying as encompassing only behaviors that are intentional; seven states define it to include only behaviors that a ‘reasonable person’ thinks would harm another person.” Only four states take into account power imbalances.

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Why focus on women, if everyone is harassed and whose experiences can be radically different?

Because abuse targeted at women is qualitatively and quantitatively different, and intersectionality matters when determining how and what to do about it. Gender based harassment is marked by the intent of the harasser to denigrate the target on the basis of sex. It is characterized by sexist vitriol and, frequently, the expression of violence.

When men face online harassment and abuse, it is first and foremost designed to embarrass or shame them. When women are targeted, the abuse is more likely to be gendered, sustained, sexualized and linked to off-line violence.

Women, the majority of the targets of some of the most severe forms of online assault – rape videos, extortion, doxing with the intent to harm – experience abuse in multi-dimensional ways and to greater effect. They are the vast majority of the victims of nonconsensual pornography, stalking, electronic abuse and other forms of electronically-enhanced violence.

In addition, women report higher rates of finding online harassment stressful. This is not because they “can’t stand the heat,” as is frequently suggested, but because the abuse online exists simultaneously with three facts:

  • Women have to be hyper-vigilant in daily life. A double digit safety gap offline has an online corollary. Women are more likely to experience more gendered and consequential abuse.  They are more frequently harassed, online and off, for sustained periods of times, in sexual ways and in ways that incorporate stalking and manipulation. They are more likely to be pornographically objectified and subjected to reputation damaging public shaming. Sexual slurs toward women evoke the threat of real-life sexual violence; they are also perceived as intended to “put a woman in her place” and tell her that her opinion is worthless because she is a woman.
  • The abuse women experience online is intersectional. Women all over the world are experiencing misogyny online, but rarely is it experienced along only one dimension. Women who are targeted because of their race, ethnicity, sexuality or disability face abuse on multiple fronts and report higher rates of emotional and psychological harm. Sometimes, sexism is married to race, others to caste, others to sexuality – the overlap has a compounding effect. A lesbian woman experiences homophobia and sexism. A black woman, racism and sexism. A Moslem or Jewish woman, religious hatred and sexism.
  • Globally, women still face sexist, patriarchal (power-over domination of all kinds) constraints that compound the negative effects of online harassment . There are preexisting, offline limitations on our ability to work, go to school, earn money, be politically active and shape culture. Limitations that, for the most part, men do not face. When girls and women are harassed online, that harassment taps into these restrictions and the potential damage is amplified. Girls and women are more likely to face bullying, harassment, censorship and abuse that reflect preexisting, and still enforced, sexist double standards and the disproportionate effect of honor culture norms. Many of the most commonly employed tactics rely on preexisting double standards regarding sexual behavior. Harassers, for example, count on women being judged for their sexual behavior and shamed and penalized because of it.
  • The harassment men experience also lacks broader, resonant symbolism. Women are more frequently targeted with gendered slurs and pornographic photo manipulation because the objectification and dehumanization of women is central to normalizing violence against us. Philosophers Martha Nussbaum and Ray Langdon describe in detail how this works: women are thought of and portrayed as things for the use of others. Interchangeable; violable; silent and lacking in agency. Much of the harassment that women are subjected to online reflects these uses of objectification.
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Aren’t anonymity and stranger danger the problem? And, if we get rid of it, won’t harassment go away?

Anonymity is a serious problem, however, anonymity doesn’t mean that the abuse comes from strangers. Most women are harassed online by people they know: school peers, acquaintances, intimate partners, former intimate partners, employers and, in some countries, religious and political authorities. Many of these people do use anonymity to perpetrate abuse, but anonymity itself isn’t the problem.

Anonymity is often a lifeline for people online, an essential dimension of privacy and freedom from violence. There are many movements, globally, such as the #Nameless Coalition, encouraging platforms to create more nuanced and flexible approaches to the problems presented by anti-anonymity policies.

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Harassment isn’t “really violent,” right? Not compared to offline violence?

Online harassment exists on a continuum with offline violence. Harassment online is a very strong thread in an already densely woven fabric of socially acceptable and institutionalized resistance to women’s full participation in the world.   A teenage girl in Pakistan might not only be harassed online, but might find that her life is at risk if her family finds out about her online life or because a conservative member of her community non-consensually shared a photograph of her on Facebook. A woman in Texas whose ex-husband nonconsensually shares naked pictures of her, might legally be fired by her conservative employer. A girl in Canada might kill herself after a video of her rape is shared electronically, and her classmates slut-shame, literally to death. A writer might have to cancel speaking opportunities because of threats made on an open-carry campus. A trafficked 10-year old in a country where child marriage is acceptable might be terrorized when her trafficker tweets a picture of himself drowning her best friend in a toilet, just to prove he can. A woman’s small business might collapse after an online mob actively decides to flood Yelp reviews with defamatory comments. And, for those tempted to think, “women over there have real problems compared to those of you complaining about online trolls,” it pays to remember that the nonconsensual distribution of sexualized images is not illegal in the vast majority of US states.

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But, aren’t men harassed, too?

Men are harassed and abused online. Studies show that they experience many of the same forms of abuse that women do. The argument that men are harassed equally or even more camouflages qualitative and quantitative differences. Men are more likely to be called names and are harassed in one-off incidents, whereas the scope of what women are experiencing is broader and more violent. Additionally, the harassment of many people, including men, is focused on their defying rigid gender and sexuality roles. Transgressions of conservative gender roles mean heightened risk for users who don’t conform. LGBTQUIA youth experience online bullying at three times the rate of their straight peers. When men are harassed, it is often by people using homophobic and feminizing slurs. Additionally, there are some notable aspects of perpetration. While women can and do engage in harassment of both men and women, most perpetrators of online assault, like offline crimes, are men.

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Don’t Women Harass Online As Well?

Yes. Women also perpetrate online abuse and express hateful sentiments. However, particular in cases of abuse that are sustained and include off-line dimensions, male-perpetration is more prevalent. For example, the overwhelming targets of abusive sharing of non-consensual pornography are women whose photos are shared by men. Similarly, stalking, in which men tend to be the majority of perpetrators, disproportionately affects women.

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Aren’t only women celebrities and writers being harassed? Aren’t they public figures and harassment goes with the territory?

Women in the public eye, journalists and celebrities, are the most frequent targets of stranger abuse, primarily involving slurs and threats. However, that type of abuse frequently affects women who are not professionally in the public eye or involved in gaming or tech. They are not public figures or writers, and they don’t have huge social platforms. They are going about their lives biologists, teachers, debaters, business consultants, mothers, technologists, activists, students, violinists and they are being harassed while they do it. All over the world women are dealing with socially, and often legally, allowable, electronically enabled abuse every day. Frequently, organizations that advocate against cyber-hate on behalf of particular groups will overlook intersectionality, and therefore the specific harms and risks that women face. Part of our work is prioritizing the intersectionality of women’s online experiences of abuse so that better solutions can be developed.

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What are the costs?

Online abuse exacts many costs that are routinely minimized. Online harassment can be a steep tax on women’s freedom of speech, civic life, and democracy.  It can and does inhibit their economic and educational opportunities.  For women, harassment frequently perpetuates harmful stereotypes, is sexually objectifying and relies on the threat of violence to be effective.  Among the most commonly reported by targets of online harassment are:


  • Emotional and psychological distress and health problems related to anxiety, depression, anger, post-traumatic stress and hypervigilance
  • Concerns about physical safety
  • Concerns about the safety of immediate family
  • Concerns about employers and family members finding out or being affected by harassment
  • Incurring financial costs of trying to avoid or offset harassment and abuse
  • Physical assault
  • Privacy violations

The seamlessness of online and offline violence means that real world safety gaps are made even more pronounced.  Perpetrators of intimate partner violence, stalkers and anonymous harassers all rely on pre-existing violence, and societal tolerance of that violence, to leverage new technologies.  According to research conducted by the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV),  89 % of domestic violence programs report that victims experience intimidation and threats by abusers via technology, including through cell phones, texts, and email.” Intimate partners create impersonator content online, sometimes with brutal results.   While media narratives often focus on stranger abuse and harassment, the fact is that the most sustained and destructive examples of abuse online, like offline, are most likely to be perpetrated by people known to victims.  While this is true worldwide, there are also unique physical risks in countries where free speech norms and gender imbalances differ from those in the US. For example, in countries with highly punitive laws against blasphemy and/or where women are discouraged from engaging in public expression and political life, online abuse is enabled.


Harassment frequently involves harm to professional life and impairs people’s ability to pursue economic opportunities.  Targets of harassment frequently worry about damage to their reputations and professional lives, their ability to find work and loss of employment. Women who are targeted might, for example, might be bombarded with bad reviews for their place of business or their work products.  Search engines might be maliciously optimized to highlight unflattering, inaccurate information.

Harassment makes women’s participation in male dominated fields or quickly evolving new markets difficult. Hostility towards girls and women in new and expanding markets is often particularly pronounced.   Misogyny and sexism expressed profusely, for example, in gaming or sports, inhibit women’s ability to fully participate and be taken seriously when they do.  Harassment reduces opportunities to engage as equals, be seen as authoritative or compete with for employment and education opportunities.

Civil and Human Rights

Danielle Citron and Mary Anne Franks argue that online abuse is, first and foremost, a civil rights issue, not only for women but for other historically discriminated against and marginalized groups. “Civil rights laws,” writes Citron in her book, Hate Crimes in Cyber Space, should “redress and punish harms that traditional remedies do not: the denial of one’s equal right to pursue life’s important opportunities due to membership in a historically subordinated group.”  

According to global studies conducted by Take Back the Tech one in five women report that “the internet is inappropriate” for them. Fear of online violence, shaming, spying and tracking are significant impediments to women’s adoption and use of internet and mobile technologies. As a result, they are effectively, systemically restrained from participating as equals in civic and economic growth opportunities.

Harassment substantively constrains free speech. Many free speech absolutists think of safety and free speech as being in opposition to one another, as in, if we make changes to ensure people’s safety online we will necessarily squelch free speech. This equation fails to consider that for marginalized and non-dominant groups safety and free speech go hand-in-hand, and that the steps necessary to ensure the safety of people online rarely require new ways of censoring speech, but rely on the proper and fair execution of existing laws and policies.  

Journalists and Media Marginalization

Hostility to women’s public engagement is hardly a new phenomenon and the experiences of women journalists and writers attests to its persistence today.  An analysis of online harassment in Twitter,  for example, conducted in 2014, revealed that women journalists and writers are among the most targeted for online abuse.  Research shows that women silence themselves, opt out of doing certain work, avoid certain topics, are fearful and restrict their level of public engagement.

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