Microsoft Claims the Internet is Getting Safer (as Long as You’re a Man)

Women and girls experienced almost 60% of all risks reported in 2021 – a record high.
Aaron Drapkin

Software Giant Microsoft marked Safer Internet Day this week with a study into online civility, concluding from their finding that online spaces were more civil overall in 2021 than they were the year prior. 

Microsoft says the results show online civility was “the best it's been” since 2016, although the data also showed that this was largely driven by improvements for boys and men, whereas the situation worsened for girls and women.

The company hopes that “providing access to this data will prompt new projects and research” into civility in online spaces.

Microsoft Study Finds Gender Disparities in Safety

Microsoft’s Civility, Safety, and Interaction Online study involved polling young people about their exposure to various online risks and harms, and culminated with the production of a Digital Civility Index (DCI) score: the lower the score, the lower the risk exposure. 

Microsoft has revealed that “this year’s global DCI score stands at 65%, which is the best it has been since the survey began in 2016.”

The Global Digital Civility Index Score for 2021 represents a 2% improvement on 2020’s score.

However, the improvement on last year's figures, according to Microsoft, was “led by teen boys and male respondents”. In fact, males accounted for 90% of the year-on-year improvement to the global DCI. 

“Teen girls and women respondents, on the other hand, reported being both more exposed to online risks and feeling more severe consequences as a result” the company concluded in their study.

Women and girls experienced almost 60% of all risks reported in 2021 – a record high – and were also more likely to suffer consequences, pain, or worry due to various types of ‘uncivil' behavior.

These findings won't come as a surprise to many women – there are reams of data and personal accounts that suggest more abuse is directed at women than it is at men. Take cyberstalking, for instance – according to the Women's Media Center, over 70% of the people that are stalked online are women, whilst 80% of the defendants in cyberstalking cases are male. 

Female US congressional candidates are more likely to receive abuse than their male counterparts. — ISD Global

The disparity between abuse received by female and male public figures also supports the idea that women fare worse online. In 2020, for instance, one study showed that female US congressional candidates were much more likely to receive abuse than their male counterparts.

This could be down in part to the fact that men are seemingly more vengeful online than women; Microsoft found that men (23%) were more likely to agree with the statement that ‘getting even is ok' than women (19%). 

Other more recent news stories have shown there are clear reasons to be worried about women's safety and the abuse they suffer in online environments like the metaverse; Facebook had to develop a ‘personal boundary' tool to combat the problem.

Whilst Civility Rose Overall, Perceptions Worsened

Interestingly, Microsoft found that, although exposure to online risks declined overall, perceptions about the overall state of online civility got worse.

Only 17% said civility improved this year, compared to 26% last year. The number of respondents that said online civility was ‘bad' grew by 5 points on last year's figures. 

Interestingly, this was the case across the board, for men, women, and all age groups, from Gen Z to boomers. In both 2020 and 2021, Millennials were the least likely age group to say civility online was ‘good', closely followed by Gen X and Gen Z respectively.

Microsoft concludes that Covid fatigue likely played a role in the gloomier perceptions people held during 2021 compared with the year prior.

Should Social Media Sites Shoulder the Blame?

Something the report makes abundantly clear is that, across the board, internet users link inaction from social media companies to the deterioration of civility in online spaces. Three-quarters of those surveyed said that civility would improve if social media companies ramped up their moderation efforts.

Respondents also questioned the merits of allowing people to create online accounts – 72% believed that you shouldn't be able to post from an anonymous account.

This may turn into an increasingly contentious issue in 2022, considering that banning people from using anonymous accounts could create problems for members of minority groups, political activists, and other threatened individuals across the globe who rely on anonymity and pseudonymity.

What is Safer Internet Day?

February 8, 2022 marked the 19th edition of “Safer Internet Day”. Around the world, organizations are running sessions with schools and groups of young people to promote “safer and more responsible use of online technology and mobile phones”. 

Safer Internet Day began as an initiative of the EU SafeBorders project back in 2004. It was then taken up by the Insafe network the year after and, since then, Safer Internet Day is now observed in around 200 countries and regions across the world.

In the US, “a series of videos for schools featuring young creators and digital well-being experts” will be rolled out,  and “schools can pick and choose from to create the program that works best for them”.

The theme this year is once again “Together for a Better Internet” – and according to the campaign’s website, “the day will call upon all stakeholders to join together to make the internet a safer and better place for all, and especially for children and young people.”

In the US, “a series of videos for schools featuring young creators and digital well-being experts” will be rolled out,  and “schools can pick and choose from to create the program that works best for them”. Topics that will be focused on include the fear of missing out, cyberbullying and misinformation, and a number of other important issues that affect young people. 

You can find out what activities, initiatives, and sessions are taking place in other countries here.

Microsoft’s Manner-Based Mantra

Microsoft also encourages internet users to take up the Digital Civility Challenge, which draws on four common-sense principles to “help grow compassion, empathy, and kindness” in online spaces. 

This includes the Golden Rule – acting with empathy and kindness in every interaction, treating everyone with dignity and respect, as well as respecting differences, honoring diverse perspectives, and standing up for yourself and others. 

Another useful tip – which it would be worth everyone taking on board – is pausing before you reply, especially to things you disagree with, and think about the consequences of what you’re going to say, and how it could affect the recipient. 

The earlier these sorts of principles are instilled in not just young people, but everyone – the better chance we have of building a better internet that's safe for both men and women.

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Aaron Drapkin is a Senior Writer at Tech.co. He has been researching and writing about technology, politics, and society in print and online publications since graduating with a Philosophy degree from the University of Bristol three years ago. As a writer, Aaron takes a special interest in VPNs and project management software. He has been quoted in the Daily Mirror, Daily Express, The Daily Mail, Computer Weekly, and the Silicon Republic speaking on various privacy and cybersecurity issues, and has articles published in Wired, Vice, Metro, The Week, and Politics.co.uk covering a wide range of topics.

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