Having been approached by a number of female charity CEOs who had experienced trolling, Social CEOs and ACEVO decided to undertake a joint survey to obtain initial findings into the experience of these women. We are very grateful to them for sharing their stories.
We learned that:
- Respondents have experienced comments about the organisation and its leaders, inappropriate behaviour and personal, targeted attacks.
- Trolling affects CEOs of both small and large charities
- 11% of respondents say trolling had a major impact on their charity
- Respondents told us that their experiences had led to limiting what they say and do online, feelings of isolation from friends and family, and a negative impact on their mental health such as stress and anxiety and feeling personally attacked.
This report is intended to start the conversation about trolling in the sector. Respondents have made suggestions about the support they would like and Charity Digital Trust will be organising a roundtable to help define next steps in more detail.
Please note, there are some vivid descriptions of trolling content below that some might find upsetting to read.
What we did
For the purposes of this survey, we define trolling as antagonising others online by deliberately posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive or abusive content.
Through conversations with charity leaders we became aware that a number of civil society leaders had experienced and been affected by trolling. In initial conversations we spoke with men and women that have experienced trolling, and ACEVO has previously produced a briefing for its members on this subject. However it became apparent in these initial conversations that women often experience particularly challenging trolling, which can include misogynistic abuse.
The online abuse of women in public facing roles, especially MPs, has been the subject of a lot of recent discussion. In order to explore this further we decided to undertake research into the experiences of female civil society CEOS. The purpose of the research was to shine a light on what had happened to them, to find out what that tells us about the support they need, how they’d like things to change on social media and how the sector could support them.
The survey ran from 20 August-17 September 2019. We had 27 in depth responses. We recognise that this is a small non-representative sample with limited diversity. The purpose of this paper is to inform conversations about what action should be taken next.
We have summarised the responses below. All quantitative data has been rounded up to the nearest decimal point.
1. Where is your charity based?
Regions were represented as follows:
- East of England (4%)
- East Midlands (0%)
- London (27%)
- North East (0%)
- North West (4%)
- Yorkshire and Humberside (8%)
- South East (19%)
- South West (4%)
- West Midlands (8%)
- Northern Ireland (0%)
- Scotland (15%)
- Wales (12%)
London, the South East, Scotland and Wales were the most well represented regions.
2. What is your charity’s income?
- 30% of respondents were CEOs of charities turning over £100-£500k
- Charities in the £1-5 million income bracket represented 26% of respondents
- CEOs leading charities with turnover of £10 million+ accounted for 15% of respondents. The same number came from charities with income of £10-£100k
- Trolling therefore affects CEOs of both small and large charities
3. Have you experienced trolling?
48% have been trolled, whilst 37% said no and 15% weren’t sure.
4. If ‘yes’ or ‘not sure’, what happened?
Respondents told us about their experiences, many of which were shocking due to the personal nature of the abuse. Many were targeted because of the decisions that they made in their capacity as CEO, the cause they worked in or their personal beliefs. One described how trolling had left them feeling suicidal.
Their experiences fell into a number of categories:
Comments about the organisation and its leaders
- “Negative comments about our charity on social media of other organisations and indirect criticism of our management.”
- “[It] started off with someone questioning our environmental credentials, which was fine. Good question, and we engaged. They didn’t take any notice of our answers, and started spreading misinformation and then copying in partners and funders. Started trolling organisation.”
- “Lots of requests to ‘follow’ from men on linked in and twitter. These might be algorithms- not sure but it is unpleasant.”
- Specific DMs from men on twitter…..with photos or sleazy introductions of themselves.”
Personal, targeted attacks
- “On Twitter, when I use the hashtag feminism, or when I talk about why it is important to empower women, I get random tweets attacking me and my ideological position. There have been quite a few and I have just chosen to ignore.
- “In one specific case however, I had a male volunteer who had questionable behaviour, and I dismissed him (I had consulted a lawyer and we dismissed him within reasonable grounds). He kept messaging me on Facebook and even though I blocked him, he found other ways to contact me e.g. email, WhatsApp, etc. It was causing me a lot of stress and I worried that he would know my location and keep track of me in person. It fizzled out after a week but it caused me a great deal of stress and anxiety. From then on I was also more cautious of establishing one to one contact with male volunteers.”
- “An anonymous person started sending frequent and abusive tweets to me and a few other people blaming us, particularly me, for child deaths. This was tangentially related to a job I left over a year ago. Other anonymous accounts joined in but I suspect they were the same person. When it started to make me feel scared I blocked them. But didn’t want to as I felt I should be aware of what was being said.”
- “I work in the refugee and migration sector, quite often I will tweet about issues facing refugees from my personal account. I have twice been told ‘you’d be lucky if one of them (refugees) rapes you’. I regularly get asked questions about whether I have refugees living with me, and if not why not. I’ve lost count of the people I’ve blocked for calling me a “(insert racist phrase) – loving – c*nt.’ “
- “Continual abuse about decision making, constant public challenge and abusive comments on business choices. Complaints, attempts to cause disruption to business functions, creation of cartoon representations of myself, galvanising of online bullying behaviour, threatening and constant criticism. Attempts to damage reputation.”
As part of this, CEOs described experiencing a large volume of negative comments:
- “People tracking me down after TV appearances to aggressively criticise me, false accusations of political allegiances, constant persistent negative tweeting to our charity as ‘scrutiny’ (30 + per day for three months and still going) but motivated by ongoing desire to undermine us.”
- “Multiple tweets, emails, mumsnet and Facebook posts calling me names such as child abuser and paedophile.”
Another CEO described their experience of a ‘pile on’ and the impact on mental health.
- “Trolling was instigated by a well known personality who should have known better, and led to personal abuse and death threats. It was a tiny organisation without the resources or experience to cope with this. It left me (as CEO) feeling suicidal, as the only way to end it.”
5. If you have experienced trolling, was it sexist or misogynistic in nature?
Responses were split equally between yes and no.
6. How did it affect you?
- 42% found it disturbing, whilst 11% said that it had a major impact on them, affecting their mental health and making them concerned for their safety or that of their family
- 11% said it had a major impact on their charity
- 16% said it worried them, but not that much, and just 5% said it didn’t bother them
- Other CEOs told us that it used to bother them, but they had become used to it
7. Can you tell us more about the effects of the trolling on you?
CEOs told us that their experiences had affected them in a number of different ways. These include limiting what they say and do online, leaving them isolated from friends and family, experiencing a negative impact on their mental health such as stress and anxiety and feeling personally attacked.
- “Made me reluctant to debate or express an opinion on Twitter. Knocked my confidence as feels so pointed and I feel defensive if I respond even not defensively.”
Concerns about impact on reputation
- “Personally upsetting and negative impact on team and worries about local perceptions.”
Impact on mental health
- “Anxiety, sleeplessness, worry about the impact on my reputation and that of my charity. I have had to report one person to the police for harassment.”
- “It makes me feel unsettled and anxious.”
- “I woke up during the night worrying about it or feeling frightened. I worried the person would turn up at things. It was very personal & therefore disturbing.”
- “High levels of stress, fear, doubt, sleepless night, impact on personal life.”
- “I find it very stressful. I get emotionally triggered by comments made and will go off Twitter for a while. Its an important and useful tool for my work, but I really feel like crying when people tweet aggressively about sexual assault (not surprising).”
- “I felt sick at the thought of opening Twitter or Facebook in fear of what he would have said. Eventually it made me stop engaging online with my friends and networks.”
Being treated differently as a woman
- “I recently found out that my male colleagues and friends didn’t experience this. That surprised me and I now think about it a bit more and am more disturbed. I don’t reply and never have. I also block or report.”
- “Really upsetting to constantly get notifications from shouty men and so many sexual messages. My twitter profile pic is me with a high neck top and wearing glasses and even with that I got accused of ‘wearing sexy glasses to turn men on and clearly asking for it.’ “
Feeling personally attacked
- “I had two different kinds of trolling. One kind is from random strangers on the Internet, but none of them had consistently ‘trolled’ me (maybe a series of tweets at one time and that’s it); but the other kind is from someone I know (whom I have worked with) and that caused a great deal of stress.”
- “So far I think I have been lucky not to experience worse trolling. It makes me stressed and I can’t sleep. The alerts keep distracting me, but I don’t feel I can block them as it hasn’t strayed into outright trolling and I need to know what they are saying. As much as I know it isn’t about me, the constant negativity is wearing me down. I am recognisable in my community and it is not hard to track down where I live so I do have some fear for my personal safety when I am out and about. Articles that mention my charity (every week) in the local paper get hundreds of nasty comments about one of our male trustees (and occasionally me) and the media outlets do absolutely nothing. According to one troll, I am single-handedly responsible for ruining the world! (I wish I was so powerful). There is a lot of misinformation about our charity out there because of these trolls.”
However one CEO told us, ”Mostly I can ignore as have become used to it, unfortunately.”
8. What was the impact on your charity?
CEOs described how dealing with trolling took time, energy and resources from their team, and affected their team’s mental health.
Impact on resources
- “The organisation had attacks from the same people that sucked loads of time, energy and confidence from our small team. What was legitimate questioning began to feel like an ongoing attack on our capabilities and integrity.”
- “Staff time and inability to counter some of the negative comments as we weren’t directly named.”
- “Taking up staff and trustee time. We are not sure of other impacts yet as the worst Twitter trolling has only been happening for a few months. I think the comments on the news articles must undermine our reputation and impact membership and funding. It makes us too controversial for local businesses to support.”
- “Costs to include security.”
- “Became a monitored business risk, but org has no ‘spare’ cash to counter the issue with legal action.”
- “Me wanting to avoid social media, when the charity sees so many benefits eg we found our last two staff members there.”
Impact on mental health
- “Seriously affected mental health of whole team of 5, and brought charity work to a complete standstill.”
- “A stressed CEO.”
- “On the latter, trolling came from a former volunteer. I know that he didn’t only troll me, but also other senior women in the organisation. At least 3 other women were trolled by him. The trolling lasted for around 2 weeks. It took up staff and Trustees time to deal with it. The volunteer lives in (location removed) so the danger of him actually tracking me down and causing me physical harm was minimal, but we had to handle it very carefully. We were also worried that he may harm our organisation’s online reputation by posting other inflammatory comments.
- “It was something we did not tell funders – no funders ever asked us about our mental wellbeing anyway. Actually this is the first time we shared this experience beyond our team. It was very traumatic for me and I still worry that other events like this will arise.”
Other CEOs described how they had a plan for dealing with trolling
- “My team are very supportive and always alert me to anything negative.”
- “We have a zero tolerance policy and block people who troll our charity’s account.”
One CEO told us that it had strengthened their resolve:
- “We are seen as being a strong feminist charity. That’s our choice. It brings benefits as well as closes some doors.”
9. What support would you like from voluntary sector umbrella / support organisations?
Charity CEOs would like more peer support, guidelines on how to deal with trolling, better support from social media companies and support from funders, and with their mental health.
Opportunities for peer support
- “Space to discuss how people respond to these things. Especially with others that share similar values and ways of working (we are committed to being open but this is hard).”
- “A safe space to share these experiences.”
- “Work tell me to laugh it off and would love to know I’m not alone and someone to turn to when things get really bad/somewhere to report men to, as sometimes these individuals are well known figures in the charity sector.”
- “I would like us all to support each other more on social media platforms. We are particularly bad at supporting female leaders when they are being vilified.”
- “Some ideas, guidance of how to handle it.”
- “Guidance on reporting/handling trolling.”
Better support from social media companies
- “Lobbying social media companies to have better policies and practices for dealing with trolls and harassment. They could easily implement algorithms to detect trolls. They could also act on reports in a timely fashion. Some clear policies about what is ok/not ok in terms of online harassment. I think we should use the term harassment instead of trolling.”
More support from funders
- “More awareness among funders to take care of mental wellbeing of female CEOs – knowing that they can be disproportionate targets of these incidents.”
10. What other changes would you like to see?
- 9 out of 10 (90%) would like changes to how the social media platforms operate
- 42% would like legal advice
- Over a third (37%) want help from the police
- 32% want support from the media
We’re very grateful to the charity CEOs who took the time to tell us about their experiences and to share ideas on the support they need.
We have been liaising with key charities across the sector who will be able to provide support on next steps. As this is such a sensitive area, ACEVO and Social CEOs want to help design a solution to this in close partnership with the CEOs who have been affected.
Charity Digital Trust have kindly offered to help organise a roundtable to discuss what support CEOs need in more depth, and to look at different ways to solve the problem. They also want to look at where charities could campaign on this issue. We’ll then test these ideas with the sector and look at how they can be developed.
If you’d like to attend the roundtable please contact Jonathan.Chevallier@charitydigital.org.uk