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Illustration by Sonaksha Iyengar

Illustration by Sonaksha Iyengar

The impact of online gender-based violence on women in public life

Web Foundation · November 25, 2020

Women and girls are experiencing a surge of violence and abuse online — a shadow pandemic spreading alongside the Covid-19 crisis. As the world marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, tech companies must urgently take steps to address abuse on their platforms so that everyone can participate online without fear.

As part of our work to tackle this crisis of online gender-based violence and abuse, the Web Foundation is convening a series of consultations that bring together tech companies with civil society organisations and women in public life to closely examine concrete threats to women’s rights online. On November 19, participants shared experiences from the worlds of journalism and politics, followed by a discussion on content moderation and privacy and safety. A readout from the session is available here.

Here are the key takeaways. 

1. Being a woman in public life and visible online makes you a target for different forms of abuse.

For many women, simply being online means they are targeted with violent and abusive content. For women politicians and journalists in particular, being in the public eye comes with an added visibility that specifically makes them even greater targets for threats of violence and abuse.

Throughout the session, women described troubling experiences of being targeted strategically across multiple platforms; having their images manipulated to humiliate and sexualise them; and receiving threats with deliberate typos designed to avoid detection by algorithms.

2. Online gender-based violence and abuse can have offline impacts.

Not only do threats and abuse online work to silence or censor women’s voices, they can also impact women’s safety offline. This is because online gender-based violence against women is a manifestation of such violence offline. For many women in public life, threats of violence online can lead to them fearing for their physical safety offline and ultimately compromise their ability to do their jobs.

We heard stories from our participants where threats of violence forced them to leave their public positions, hire private security, or close their offices to the public. One woman recalled how the abuse online got so bad that a member of her staff bought themselves a stab proof vest as a precaution.

3. Online gender-based violence and abuse is an intersectional issue.

Women from marginalised communities, including LGBTQ+ people, women of colour, and Black women in particular, are often disproportionately targeted with online abuse, which means their voices are silenced more often than other women. Participants shared experiences and research showing how women journalists and politicians who are Black or people of colour experience more abuse than white women in the same roles, and this abuse is often overtly racist and sexist.

Participants also shared that this increased abuse can be different for Black women, often in subtle ways. The expertise of Black women can be discredited and their work miscited or completely disregarded.

4. Not all journalists and politicians experience abuse and violence in the same way.

Being in the public eye may mean women are increasingly targeted, but not all experiences of women in public life are identical. 

The topic of a journalist’s work and the country where they work can impact the forms of abuse they experience. For example, in Latin America, one participant shared research that found cases of hashtags, memes, and photoshopped images being used to damage the credibility of broadcasters. A journalist’s beat can also coincide with increased abuse, with women reporting on sports or human rights reportedly being targeted more often. 

While more prominent journalists and politicians often receive more abuse, they may also have better access to resources like digital training, or media and legal support. In journalism, freelancers are less likely than journalists employed by a specific outlet to have access to tools and support — but many women journalists say they feel alone when experiencing online abuse, regardless of whether or not they work directly for a media outlet.

5. While many companies have developed innovative privacy and security tools, it can be difficult for women in public life to find and use these features.

Social media platforms currently offer a variety of settings to address online abuse — but these tools are not always easy to find or use. For journalists and politicians, verification, like the blue checkmark on Twitter, can provide credibility and be important for their safety. But the verification process can be cumbersome, and many — especially those without institutional support or in the Global South — do not have the resources or capacity to work through it. 

Participants also noted that privacy settings can be confusing, and said they would like to see standardised terminology across platforms so it is easier to understand how a feature or tool can be used. The tech companies acknowledged that while these tools do exist, they are working to make them more accessible, and also ensure they take different languages and cultures into account.

6. Reporting systems need to be improved to better support women.

The reporting process is one of the most challenging aspects of managing online abuse. Both participants and tech companies agreed that the burden of reporting abuse should not rest on the women experiencing abuse alone. 

To report abuse, women must fit their experience into categories defined by the platforms, and these definitions frequently vary across platforms. Content moderators don’t always understand or have access to the context surrounding the abuse, such as why a particular word may be abusive in a particular country or dialect.

This means that moderators don’t always have a full understanding of the abuse, which in turn means that marginalised communities don’t always get the support they need from tech platforms’ moderation teams. 

After reporting abuse, women oftentimes feel left in the dark about what happens next. Participants shared that when they report content and do not hear back, they fear that the platforms did not take action because they failed to understand why the content was harmful. This is why it is essential that once abuse is reported, the response from tech companies is timely and transparent.    

7. Researchers need better transparency and access to data.

Researchers need access to the right data so they can better understand online gender-based violence and its impact, identify patterns, and measure the effectiveness of moderation. Participants from the research community emphasised that, without data, it is unclear whether mitigation efforts like blocking accounts actually makes a difference in the behaviour of those posting abusive content.

Participants also shared that transparency reports need a greater level of granular detail – including race and gender disaggregated data. This is particularly important as platforms work to improve machine learning algorithms to tackle context and nuance in abusive posts.

8. Online gender-based violence and abuse against women journalists and politicians has a generational impact. 

When we fail women public figures, we fail a whole generation of young women. One female politician shared that although she wants to encourage young women to get involved in politics, she does not want them to be subject to the rampant abuse that she herself faces as a public figure. The abuse faced by women in public life serves as a major deterrent for young women to make themselves heard online, threatening to perpetuate the silencing effect for generations to come and this is especially so for those from already marginalised communities.

In the run up to Generation Equality, we must ensure the web works for women in public life to encourage more young women and girls to make their voices heard. 

Next steps

Following this third consultation, the fourth and final consultation will take a closer look at the experience of girls and young women, paying specific attention to the intersections of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity. Insights from each of the four consultations will inform a series of policy design workshops that will bring together women’s rights organisations and tech companies to co-create policy and product solutions to online gender-based violence using an innovative, human-centered approach.

Violence against women, including online gender-based violence, threatens progress on gender equality. Today, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, we urge technology companies and governments to take action so that the web is a safe and empowering space for everyone.


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  1. Sri Mustika

    January 2, 2021

    Hello,This article is very informative. It means a lot to me.Thanks.

    Reply

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