Safer Virtual Spaces: why we need safer spaces policies for the internet

If you turn on your computer and switch to any social media outlet or online news media site, you’re likely to find instances of hate speech. Oftentimes, you don’t need to look very hard for it, as it pops up on your facebook feed or appears in the comments at the bottom of your favourite news provider. This usually takes the form of victim blaming – whether that person has been the victim of assault or the victim of a system that has failed to create space for them to grow and thrive. These online comments hurl the most vitriolic and threatening abuse at people who are perceived of as ‘benefit scroungers’, ‘sluts’, ‘illegal’ immigrants, or the working poor. Even within the confines of a national editorial outlet, such as the Guardian, hate speech can appear – and does appear – without warning.

It can be difficult to understand the violent aggression and anger that seems to feed much of this hate speech, though it does appear that it is finding an outlet more and more often on the internet. And problems that are present in wider society (such as racism, sexism, transphobia, classism, homophobia, etc.) are also problems in the virtual world – for example, women and people from sexual minorities are twice as likely to be victims of online bullying than men. In the same way that hate speech can alienate people of minority groups from taking part in social activities, so online hate speech can dispossess people of the security to contribute or take part in a meaningful way. In the same way that we believe in safer spaces policies for physical spaces and convergences, we also believe that there should be safer spaces policies for virtual spaces.

The lines between what is ‘real’ interaction and what is ‘virtual’ interaction become less important as in the UK more than a quarter of people spend more time communicating with people online than they do face-to-face. And while we welcome the potential for social media and the internet to create connections between people, organizations, and movements – which otherwise would have remained disparate – we hope to see an internet which is actively working to evolve out of the archaic hierarchies which continuously plague our society. We encourage groups to mediate their online spaces in the same way they would their physical spaces in order to begin creating an open and inclusive virtual world where everyone can participate in and contribute to the development of ideas, evolution, and revolution.

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