WiJ/ WOW: Women and social media: friend or foe?

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Five ways to deal with social media abuse by Hilly Janes

Women and social media: friend or foe? was the title of the WIJ debate generously hosted by the Women of the World festival on 12th February in the beautiful Weston Roof Pavilion at the Southbank Centre, and introduced by Jude Kelly, its artistic director. http://wow.southbankcentre.co.uk/

A hundred WIJ members and guests listened to the chair, WIJ’s Jane Martinson @janemartinson, Guardian Women’s editor, and her panel:  Helen Lewis @helenlewis, deputy editor, New Statesman; Laurie Penny @pennyred, blogger, journalist and author; Helen Keegan @technokitten, specialist in mobile marketing, advertising and media; Eva Simpson @evasimpsontimes who has recently left her post as assistant news editor at The Times, and Sue Llewellyn @suellewellyn former BBC reporter, now a social/digital strategy and training consultant.

Given that 58 per cent of Facebook users are female, and 14m more women than men tweet daily, it wasn’t surprising to hear Helen Lewis and Laurie Penny acknowledge how important different platforms had been in promoting their work. Many journalists now only access news feeds via Twitter, while editors are always on the lookout for new talent in the blogosphere. Even tweeters with a small following can make a big difference. Rupert Murdoch announced that he was considering dropping The Sun’s page 3 picture in response to a tweet from a mother with only 23 Twitter followers.

But there’s a flipside: criticism and abuse that can be obscene and even frightening – and the panel had some unrepeatable examples. While some guests argued that this is just the modern equivalent of heavy breathing by a man in a phone box and women have to learn to live with it, others talked, worryingly, about the reluctance of some young women to join social media for fear of being publicly humiliated. How seriously to take abuse was a focus of the debate. Here are five suggestions from the panel on how to deal with it.

1. Expect people to behave badly – tweeters and website comment-makers often act as if they are in a private, not public space and do stupid things like drivers who pick their noses in cars and think no one can see them.

2. If you really object, screen-grab abuse so it can be used as evidence. Tweeters like the man who abused classics professor Mary Beard about her appearance on BBC’s Question Time  was eventually outed by other tweeters. But think hard before you do it – how vulnerable are angry tweeters, and could outing them be a form of bullying?

3. Don’t feed the trolls: you’ll never win an argument on Twitter so don’t engage in one and never retweet abuse.

4. If you do react, don’t get personal, but make points about the issue – sexism, ageism, bullying etc.

5. Use social media to rally other people to your point of view by creating Facebook pages and using hashtags on Twitter to reach the widest possible audience.