Trolls driving women off the web (and turning girls off IT)

Boys and older trolls are elbowing girls and older women off the Internet, just as they used to elbow them off computers in schools in the 1980s. During the first, and most successful, campaign to encourage girls to consider IT careers (1988 – 94) it was found that the biggest problems came at puberty when boys drove, sometimes quite brutally, girls out of school computer clubs so that they could play games. And teachers tended to reinforce stereotypes. Until a couple of  years ago I  thought equality of access would improve as the technology became ubiquitous with smart phones and social media. Now I know that I was wrong. Inequality is getting worse as the trolls bully girls and women, of all ages, off social media as a whole.

The problems that occurred during the General election, when every female MP who went on-line was trolled, were raised in the House of Commons.  I am told that all Conservative MPs who used social media were personally trolled with varying degrees of viciousness. So too were their supporters in the constituencies “stormed” by the student vote. Outside those constituencies I am told that the bile was largely reserved for the candidates themselves. Nonetheless it helped cause the Conservative Party to withdraw from social media – because they were not willing to allow their IT literate members to fight fire with fire.

Now let us look at the effect on Women in the IT industry and on girls who might have been considering entry to digital careers. They are almost invisible except in those on-line chat rooms which do robust security. Hence the concern over the unilateral changes to remove the security girls thought they had over their Snapchat groups. The quote below was sent to me on behalf of the 14 year old daughter of a male security professional. She wanted to summarise what she and her friends use and thus to help influence the priorities for political action.

Instagram: used for posting photos and videos, you can also go live where anybody can watch unless you’re private where only your followers can watch. You can also post on your “story” where anyone again can see unless you’re private and your followers can see. The pictures and videos can be liked and commented on

Snapchat:Has a new feature which is a map where you can see exactly where your friends are, you can send pictures, videos, post on your story, direct message friends and video call. However on Snapchat, only people who you have added and they have added you back can see what you post of your story. The story snapchats only last for 24 hours and then they disappear, and it tells you exactly who has seen it and if anyone has screenshotted it. Snapchat is probably the most used social media for teenagers.

Some people have Twitter and Facebook but they are not used as much or as popular.

YouTube: mainly used to watch videos but can be commented on and liked or disliked.”

She has 400 friends in her own group, about average for a normal teenager. She does not, however, know how she was added to some of the other groups which claim her as a member. You and I will be aware of the problem over LinkedIn. We find people we have never met, or approved, in our contact lists – probably because they were in the circulation lists of groups we had visited out of idle curiosity. But curiosity killed the cat.

The scale and nature of trolling also helps explain why I was unable to get any suitable female role-models in the security industry to lead the project to commemorate the anniversary of the birth of Joan Clarke (nearly as great a cryptographer as her fiance Alan Turing). The only ones interested were marketing professionals looking to trawl for recruits and they were not, themselves, planning to be named.

I can think of a number of solutions to the trolling problem but, to be effective, they require support from advertisers who want to clean up the media they use to promote their brands – and are big enough to collectively take on the big beasts of the Internet in order to do so. Until then, it is probable that Parliament and regulators will run away from the problem unless, and until, female MPs from all sides ally to force the pace – or, more likely, a tragedy leads to a crowd-funded class action akin to those overdue against those whose criminal irresponsibilities over the past decade or so led to the multiple vulnerabilities of the Grenfell Tower.

The on-line world is now awash with multiple vulnerabilities while the security industry looks forward to decades of growth, adding layers of dangerous cladding, in stead of removing vulnerabilities.  We do not have that long before tragedy strikes and business models implode.

I should add that the problem is worse in the UK than elsewhere because we are so much behind others in our transaction to IPV6. It is therefore that harder to uniquely identify predators.