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Yaël Eisenstat Addresses the Women’s Assembly

Yaël Eisenstat addressed the Women’s Assembly at the 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, USA.

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests and fellow advocates for a safer, more just world. Today, I stand before you not only as an advocate, but as someone who has witnessed firsthand the devastating impacts of hate, harassment, and extremism in both our online and offline worlds. 

In my current role, leading the Center for Tech and Society at the Anti-Defamation League, I work to end the proliferation of hate, harassment, and extremism online, as well as to hold both tech companies and the perpetrators of online hate accountable for their actions. Despite all the great things that technology has provided the world, I have seen the dark underbelly of our online ecosystem, and it’s at time corrosive effects on discourse and democracy.

After spending nearly two decades dedicated to protecting national security, both at home and abroad, I began fearing that the biggest threat to American democracy was actually the breakdown in our own discourse, the toxic, effective polarization that was pitting us against our neighbors. I started ringing the alarm bells publicly back in 2015 and digging deeper into how social media was fueling this threat.

Ultimately, that led me to working at Facebook, where I was tasked with protecting the integrity of elections around the world. I witnessed the alarming proliferation of disinformation campaigns designed to deceive and manipulate voters. These campaigns exploited existing fault lines in society, stoking hatred and division, and they used the very tools that Facebook and other social media companies offered to accomplish these goals.

Unsurprisingly, women, in particular, were often targeted with gender-based disinformation and toxic content, aimed at undermining their credibility and suppressing their voices. Time and again, I raised these concerns internally at Facebook, and time and again, they overlooked the urgency of these threats. So I knew it was my duty to raise the alarm, and I did. did. 

Politically stoked offline violence was inevitable if nothing changed, and what I warned could eventually happen did on January 6th, when an insurrection planned in open largely on Facebook struck our nation’s capital. My worst-case scenario came true. So since leaving Facebook in 2018, I have dug much deeper into the roles that social media and other tech companies play in our lives. 

At ADL, I am laser-focused on ending the proliferation of anti-Semitism and all forms of hate and harassment online. You see, anti-semitism, much like misogyny, is a canary in the coal mine. Where we see a rise in anti-semitism in misogyny and these kinds of hate, we know violence against other groups is not far behind. Unfortunately, as our research at ADL proves, online abuse continues at rampant levels. And sadly, it is no surprise that female politicians, activists, and journalists bear the brunt of this abuse. 

Women, brave enough to enter the political arena and fight for change, are subjected to severe online attacks and offline. For women of color and religious minorities, these attacks are only compounded. Relentless vitriol silences women. It impacts their ability to fully participate in society. It discourages aspiring female leaders from entering politics. It perpetuates the underrepresentation of women in positions of power.

As a Jewish woman with a public voice, I have just come to expect harassment whenever I log on to social media. I have long been a target for both those who I have criticized and for an army of online trolls. They work to discredit and silence my voice. And I admit, in part, they have succeeded. I have found myself self-censoring more than once, hesitating to enter certain public conversations. That, after all, is what they are hoping to do, to silence us. Sadly, my experience is not unique.

According to my team’s annual online hate and harassment survey, year after year, women report high rates of online hate and harassment. In the last 12 months alone, roughly one in three women reported identity-based online harassment. Nearly one in five reported severe harassment, such as physical threats, stalking, doxing. 

Our 2023 findings verify that religious minorities, as well as LGBTQ + people and women, continue to face a disproportionate level of online hate. And we know that platforms are not adequately supporting targets. For example, our latest data revealed that over a 12-month period, nearly 40 % of respondents received physical threats on social media. But when they reported these threats, more than one-third of the time platforms took no action. They didn’t delete the content. They didn’t suspend the violating user. These targets were left without the support they deserve. 

The consequences of this relentless harassment and abuse are far-reaching, even beyond the personal toll it takes on victims. When marginalized voices are targeted and silenced online and offline, our collective democratic discourse and societal advancements suffer. Women’s unique perspectives, insights, and lived experiences are vital for shaping inclusive policies and advancing societal progress. The absence of these voices perpetuates systemic biases and inequalities hindering our collective ability to address pressing challenges.

This is why I keep fighting. And this is why my team continues to insist that both the tech industry and our governments have roles to play in reversing this course and creating a healthier online ecosystem that both protects people and helps foster more robust and thriving democracies. In fact, I will be speaking later on today at 5 p.m. with another one of my colleagues where we will go into more detail on a panel called How Tech Advances Are Fueling Online Hate. So I hope you will join us there. 

Social media companies tell us that harassment is just a necessary cost of doing business. We need to put up with it in order to protect free speech. But we do not need to choose between protecting free speech and protecting targets from harm. Changing the incentive structures for social media companies to do business, having more information about the inner workings of platform systems and increasing protections for targets of hate can change the game. There isn’t one single fix.

It isn’t simple, but it is possible. Social media executives and engineers can and should design their platforms and content policies differently, prioritizing safety and community over engagement and profit. We as advocates must also choose to use our voices and power to shine a light on these issues and to demand the changes needed to foster a safer, more equitable digital world. 

Women, people of color, LGBTQ + people, and religious minorities know when something will be dangerous for us. We are experts on the hate directed at us. Our warnings to social media companies and governments must be taken seriously. So I urge you to make your voices heard and to push for all of us to collaborate from technology companies to policymakers, educators to civil society. We can create inclusive spaces that amplify the voices of women and underrepresented groups. And we must work collectively to forge a safer, more inclusive online ecosystem. 

By doing so, we can reclaim the true potential of technology and build a world where equality, respect, and the free exchange of ideas can flourish. A safer, more equitable online system is possible. We just need to fight for it. Thank you.

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