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There’s a pandemic of online violence against women and girls

Web Foundation · July 14, 2020

Following our submission to the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, gender researcher Chenai Chair (@chenaichair) reflects on the increase of online gender-based violence during the Covid-19 crisis.

“Never forget that it will be enough for a political, economic or religious crisis for the rights of women to be called into question” – Simone de Beauvoir

The Covid-19 pandemic has upended life for billions — but the strain and hardship is particularly acute for those who already face the greatest challenges. It’s almost always the most vulnerable who suffer most in any crisis, and Covid-19 is no exception.

As evidence of the human costs of the pandemic gathers, it’s increasingly clear that women and girls are suffering from a surge of violence and domestic abuse. So many women are locked down at home in dangerous situations, just as there are fewer shelters and services available, and friends and support networks are harder to reach. And we’re seeing that this gender-based violence is increasing online too.

To get a fuller picture of this escalating crisis, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women has called for information on the increase of violence during Covid-19. In our submission, we focus on the digital dimension of the crisis and warn that the growing trend of online violence and abuse against women has accelerated during Covid-19 and offer our policy recommendations for tackling this violence. 

There is a pandemic of online gender-based violence emerging during Covid-19, and it must be addressed now. The increased domestic violence against women witnessed during the crisis is spilling into the online space, turning the lifeline of the internet into a hostile space.

As our co-founder Tim Berners-Lee warned earlier this year, the web is too often not safe for women. 52% of young women and girls we surveyed said they’d experienced online abuse, including threatening messages, sexual harassment and the sharing of private images without consent. 87% said they think the problem is getting worse. 

Taking many forms — from violent threats and digital surveillance to sexual harassment and the sharing of intimate images without permission — online abuse can have a devastating mental and physical toll on women and girls. And we know from past research that women activists of colour, and Black women activists in particular, are disproportionately affected. In cases of  domestic violence, abusive (ex) partners also monitor, track, threaten and perpetrate violence with digital tools. 

A pandemic of online violence during Covid-19

Many forms of online abuse have skyrocketed during the Covid-19 crisis as life has shifted online and people spend more time on digital devices. For instance, there has been a surge in non-consensual sharing of images designed to threaten, shame and control women. Distribution or threats of sharing non-consensual intimate images also takes place largely within contexts of intimate partner violence. One UK helpline has seen a doubling of their website traffic since lockdown began, with 50% of cases linked to domestic violence

This abuse has devastating consequences for the mental wellbeing of victims as they are often left alone with their experience, an experience that is normalized and invisibilised on social media and in society in general, driving victims to silence and shame, exposing them to their perpetrators, and sometimes leading them to self-harm, depression and suicide.

The challenge of making platforms safer has been exacerbated as social media moderators have been sent home, making content moderation more dependent on imperfect artificial intelligence tools. Morgan Barbour, a model, writer and activist, has been documenting the influx of online abuse that she’s personally experienced since the pandemic hit:

“This abuse is nothing new, but Instagram’s response to it has taken an insidious turn. Every report is now met with this message: ‘We couldn’t review your report. We have fewer people available to review reports because of the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak, so we’re only able to review content with the most potential for harm.’ The first report that received this response was for a DM from a user threatening to find me, rape me, and murder me. It would seem ‘most potential for harm’ is subjective.”

Over time, tech companies have developed a handful of product solutions like better reporting flows for harassment, but far more needs to be done to meet the threat of abuse and harassment that faces women, girls and everyone online — particularly during moments like this where online violence becomes even more prevalent.

We need tech firms to focus on online gender-based violence — now and in the future — in the same way they’ve worked to tackle disinformation and promoting official advice about the virus.

Our submission to the UN Special Rapporteur outlines a series of recommendations to tackle online abuse and harassment — from governments making sure the legal system and law enforcement is set up for women to take legal action against perpetrators, to tech companies employing “gender by design” when designing products and services.

Consultations and workshops to address online gender-based violence

Covid-19 has shown that the web is not a luxury, but a critical lifeline. Any barriers that stop people using the web threatens to strip them of this lifeline. Tech companies must urgently step up to improve the safety of their platforms so that everyone can access the web’s benefits without fear.

To do this, they must listen to those who have experienced violence on their platforms and learn  from them. To facilitate this engagement, the Web Foundation is hosting a series of consultations throughout 2020 and beyond, bringing together tech companies with women from across civil society to collaborate on the technical and policy challenges that need to be addressed to tackle gender-based violence on tech platforms.

The second of these consultations, taking place on July 15th, will examine the threats experienced by women activists, especially women of colour and Black women — including the specific risks they face in the form of racist and sexist hate speech and gendered and racialized threats and attacks.

Evidence from this session — and all four consultations — will inform a series of policy design workshops where women’s rights organisations and tech companies will work together to build policies and products to tackle online gender-based violence, with the needs of women at the forefront, not addressed as an afterthought.

Violence against women is a huge threat to progress on gender equality. And unless we make sure the web is a safe place for women and girls, our digital technology will be one more way that women are attacked, suppressed and marginalised rather than be the platform for voice, opportunity and positive change that we know it could be. That’s why it’s urgent that companies and governments work closely with women’s activists and the wider civic tech community to tackle violence online and make the web safe and empowering for everyone.

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