Trigger warning: This article discusses the different forms of violence that women experience online which may be triggering for survivors. While graphic descriptions of this violence were avoided, the subject matter is potentially triggering.
Human rights must be as salient online as they are offline. As more of our daily lives are constructed around the digital space due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever to recognize that the internet is not an inherently safe space for women. It is vital to be aware that women are being subjected to violence that is pervasive, detrimental to their emotional and psychological well-being, and dangerous to their physical safety once they enter the online space. Women’s rights to privacy, safety, health, education, and work are being violated online with impunity. This article will elaborate on some of the ways that online violence against women is permeating the public space and leading to self-censorship, psychological ramifications, and the entrenchment of harmful gender stereotypes. It will also delve into some of the digital safety practices that can mitigate risk and share why reporting mechanisms are imperative to holding social media companies accountable.
To begin, it is essential to understand that around the world, women are less likely to have access to the internet in comparison with men. This phenomena is known as the gender digital divide. As the graphic below illustrates, overall, there is a 26% difference worldwide in female access to the internet, with 327 million fewer women having access when compared to men. This is intrinsically tied to online violence against women in that women are less likely to have the training and digital awareness to enter the digital space with full knowledge about their rights, reporting mechanisms, and privacy standards.
There are several pervasive myths about online violence again women, namely that it is a ‘victimless crime,’ that is not harmful or even that it does not exist, that combatting violence against women online would amount to censorship, and that there are no options for recourse for this issue. First of all, the prevalence of online violence against women clearly indicates that it is a worldwide, systematic, and grievously harmful issue. Glitch, an organization based in the UK, asserts that around the world, women are 27 times more likely to be abused and harassed online when compared to men. Moreover, violence against women online transcends the digital space. For 41% of the women who have been subjected to online abuse, they have reported that they feel their physical safety is threatened, as researched by Amnesty International in this report. Furthermore, this abuse is compounded for those with multi-intersecting identities, with Black women being 84% more likely to experience abusive tweets than white women. These attacks are rife with sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia, and can also target the individual based on their religious and ethnic identification, which is why this issue must be addressed in an intersectional way, recognizing the compounded oppression and violence women face online as a result of intersecting identities. Human rights defenders, politicians, journalists, openly LGBTQIA+ individuals, and other women who are in the public spotlight are particularly targeted for these attacks.
The tangible effects of these attacks are well-documented, this is not a victimless crime. 55% of those who have experienced online gender based violence have reported psychological effects such as panic attacks and anxiety, 63% have trouble sleeping, 76% adjusted the way they use their media platforms, and 32% entirely halted sharing certain content and their opinion on particular issues. It is clear that when women experience violence online, the psychological toll of these attacks leads to anxiety, fear, and self-censorship. For those that might argue that any infringement or effort to stop these attacks is tantamount to censorship, it is abundantly clear that the true censorship is derived from these attacks when women feel they must self-censor for the sake of their own safety and not for those perpetuating these attacks, all too often from the security of their shroud of anonymity. Violence against women online is antithetical to representative civic participation.
These attacks are systematic, gendered, and are all too often being perpetrated by state leaders themselves with the intent to silence women’s voices in the public space and terrorize women into self-censorship. Men are undeniably criticized online for their policies, the content of their posts, their decisions, and their identity if they belong to a marginalized group, but when women are attacked online, the attacks are gendered. Women are sexualized, body-shamed, and subjected to threats of bodily harm in the digital space in ways and to an extent that men are not. The graphic below illustrates the tactics, legal ramifications, and the impact of online abuse.
SOURCE: Women’s Media Center
As portrayed above, there are numerous forms that these attacks can take. Most might have some familiarity with terms such as cyberbullying, identity theft, and stalking, however, there are a range of new threats that have emerged in recent years. Doxxing is when a person’s private information, such as their phone number, address, bank account information, children’s schools, is hacked and posted publicly. This is one of the ways that violence against women online transcends the digital space— once someone’s address is leaked, they face a much greater risk of physical violence. It is also psychologically traumatizing to know that the people who are harassing you, threatening to kill or rape you or your family members, have your address, phone number, or other personal information. Another tactic that is becoming more and more common is deepfakes. Deepfakes are videos or images that have been digitally altered to change one person’s face to that of another. Women are the primary targets of deepfake videos, with a common practice being to superimpose the image of a woman onto a pornographic video in an attempt to humiliate and discredit her. Nonconsensual pornography, also known as revenge porn or sextorsion, is increasing as explicit image sharing between partners becomes more common. These images or videos are shared without consent and countries are becoming progressively more aware of the heinous nature of this tactic and punishing it by law. You can learn more about these tactics and others by reading this article from the Women’s Media Center.
Rana Ayyub, an investigative journalist in India, was the target of an online defamation campaign when tweets that were doctored to make them appear to be from her were posted online. Following this, a pornographic deepfake video of her was widely circulated in political groups and around the country. She was then doxxed, her phone number was posted, and the police refused to file a report. In an article about her experience she writes, “People started sending me WhatsApp messages asking me for my rates for sex. I was sent to the hospital with heart palpitations and anxiety, the doctor gave me medicine. But I was vomiting, my blood pressure shot up, my body had reacted so violently to the stress…. From the day the video was published, I have not been the same person. I used to be very opinionated, now I’m much more cautious about what I post online. I’ve self-censored quite a bit out of necessity.” When women speak out in public spaces, like Rana Ayyub has done in India, they face the risk of being subjected to iniquitous attacks online that will cause lasting psychological trauma. It appears that these tactics will only increase as we continue to spend more time online and in increasingly polarized digital spaces. Digital literacy and safety are more vital than ever and digital users must be trained to recognize doctored content and not be bystanders to online abuse.
While individual actors can and do harass, cyber-stalk, and shame women online, there is another pervasive issue that must also be addressed. There is a common misconception that those carrying out these attacks are trolls living out of their parent’s basement. It is not necessarily the case that an individual actor is carrying out an attack, or that it is even someone that the victim knows. In fact, Amnesty International found that in 59% of cases, the victim did not know their online attacker. Oxford University found that organized and high-level disinformation campaigns were perpetrated in 70 countries in 2019, an increase of 22 from 2018. Cyber mobs are being organized by government agencies to attack their own citizens, as well as citizens from other countries. World leaders are sharing deepfake videos with the aim to destroy the reputation of their female opponents. In just one of many examples, President Donald Trump shared a deepfake video on Twitter of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to discredit her and make her appear to be publicly intoxicated. The original video was slowed by 75% and her voice was adjusted to sound as though it is her natural pitch. “PELOSI STAMMERS THROUGH NEWS CONFERENCE,” Donald Trump tweeted as he shared the video. While not a high-tech video, the fact that 2.5 million people viewed it within a week and tens of thousands of people shamed her for being ‘drunk’ illustrates the impunity with which public leaders can share misinformation. However, it is vital to realize that these leaders are acting on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram and these platforms must also be held accountable for allowing the perpetuation of misinformation, abuse, and harassment.
Since the response of governments, police officers, and lawmakers could be another article in itself, suffice it to say that there is a worldwide issue of impunity, with leaders turning a blind eye to the violence women face both online and offline. In the wake of any government action or legal recourse, it is vital to use reporting mechanisms to hold social media companies accountable for abuse perpetuation on their platform and to enhance our own personal security measures when we enter the digital space. There are several digital safety practices that can help protect your security and privacy online. Using strong passwords, double-factor identification when possible, encrypted chat services, and checking your privacy settings on platforms you use are a great place to start. If you do experience any form of harassment online, keep the evidence and report it to the platform. It is also generally recommended to not respond to any messages or abusive content. The Organization of American States provides further recommendations about how to report abuse, mental health services to seek, and a more comprehensive list of recourses in this guide. Reporting to digital platforms is an under-utilized tool that can help us all call for more accountability from companies. Like so many other issues in the women’s rights space, the burden seems to fall on women to protect themselves and report abuse, instead of creating systems of accountability for perpetrators. Hopefully a day will come where our legal systems, social media platforms, and politicians uphold the rights of all digital users and foster open dialogue free from violence and harassment. Until then, we must continue to raise our voices against the violence that women face in digital spaces, to practice digital safety to the best of our ability, and to report and call-out abusive content when we experience or see it.
About the author:
Emily Landes was raised in Denver, Colorado and has lived in El Salvador, Costa Rica, Northern Ireland, and Switzerland. Emily completed her Master’s in International Law and Human Rights Studies at the United Nations Mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica. Her thesis focused on the human rights implications of family separation policies in the U.S. She received her BA from Marquette University in International Affairs with minors in Women’s and Gender Studies and Spanish. She also studied at the Universidad Centroamericana in San Salvador, El Salvador. Emily has worked in the field of non-violence and human rights education with nonprofit organizations in San Diego, Milwaukee, El Salvador, and Northern Ireland. In 2018 she reported on the Human Rights Council for the United Nations Development Program on topics relating to violence against women in digital contexts, discrimination against women in law and practice, and internal displacement and migration. She currently works for Vital Voices Global Partnership, a women’s leadership organization, on the Rising Voices programs.