A safer digital public sphere: addressing online gender-based violence
The acceleration of sexist hate speech directed at women politicians online, harassment of LGBTQI+ populations and technology-assisted, intimate-partner violence and surveillance reveal the contradictions and challenges of the internet in the 21st century. Although digital technologies are powerful tools for information sharing, self-expression and organization, they can also be used to deny or diminish people’s human rights.
While approximately 40% of the world’s population is unable to connect to the internet, those who are online are increasingly reporting experiences of violence and harassment, particularly women and gender non-conforming individuals. Forms of abuse include harassment, impersonation, surveillance, tracking, hacking, spamming, the non-consensual sharing of intimate images and death threats. This technology-facilitated violence silences female and queer voices, entrenches unequal access to the digital world and has chilling and detrimental impacts on people’s lives.
Despite reports of individual cases, there continues to be a dearth of statistically significant research in the Global South about the online experiences of women and queer communities and the levels of harassment and violence they face. The rapidly changing technological and social media landscape and the differences among popular social media platforms in various countries hamper efforts to design and evaluate responses that work across regions and platforms.
To help fill this knowledge gap, IDRC has supported several research projects to understand the new reality. This includes the first statistically meaningful survey in the Global South on tech-facilitated gender-based violence and foundational research on countering sexist hate speech, the possibilities for a feminist internet and cybersecurity for LGBTQI+ communities.
The findings from this rich body of research are already having an impact on the governance of the digital public sphere in international and national policy spaces.
Global data on technology-facilitated, gender-based violence and harassment
This 18-country survey found that approximately six out of 10 women and transgender, non-binary and non-heterosexual individuals have experienced online coercion and harassment, sexual harms and harms to identity, reputation, privacy and security. Led by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), this IDRC-supported research reached representative samples of people in Africa, the Middle East, South America and Asia — regions of the world that are rarely included in public opinion polling on internet issues.
The survey results illustrate the effects of online violence. Nearly half of those who have been harassed reported an impact on their mental health and struggles with stress, anxiety, or depression. Nearly four in 10 felt adverse effects on their ability to engage freely online and express their views. More than one-third reported negative impacts from harassment on their close relationships, or that they could not focus on their everyday life. Of those surveyed, 40% of victims said they had never sought help, either from within personal circles or from support organizations.
Using this data, development, private-sector and government actors can improve their design of responses to tech-facilitated, gender-based violence — possibly by regulating online social media platforms and other legal measures, as well as improving media literacy, digital security and other kinds of education. With renewed IDRC support, CIGI is extending the research to an additional 15 to 18 countries and will delve more into women’s and LGBTQI+ communities’ online experiences across the Global South.
Legal and policy responses to online sexist hate speech and intimidation
Women in politics and female public figures from across the world report disturbing levels of abuse on social media platforms. Foundational IDRC-supported research in India and Brazil set out to develop a comprehensive societal and legal change strategy to address the proliferation of viral sexism and misogynistic hate speech in the digital public sphere.
IT for Change carried out an in-depth investigation of case laws in India to examine the challenges of accessing justice. The research team identified 90 cases of women seeking redress for various forms of online sexism, misogyny and gender-based violence. It concludes that despite some protection from strong right-to-privacy laws in India, the lack of a specific legal provision to address challenges, such as the non-consensual circulation of intimate images, made it very difficult for the judicial system to recognize and act on gender-related harassment online. The project established a knowledge network of leading feminist scholar-practitioners and lawyers to catalyze public debate on the specific legal reforms needed. The forthcoming legal resource guide targeting judges and lawyers, expected to be launched in 2023, will offer a holistic understanding of gendered cyberviolence and existing solutions within the law that are rights-based and survivor-focused.
IT for Change also studied the prevalence of sexist hate speech on Twitter in India, documenting how gender-based abuse and trolling falls between the regulatory cracks of the existing content governance and automated hate-detection techniques of popular social media platforms.
With a focus on female political and public figures, IDRC research partner InternetLab analyzed social media comments related to both male and female contenders in Brazil’s 2020 municipal elections at a time when candidates had turned more extensively to online campaigning because of the COVID-19 pandemic. InternetLab found that women running for office were more exposed to online political violence, particularly on Twitter, with attacks often alluding to their bodies, intellectual caliber and morality. The violence also targeted women because of other social markers such as their race, social class, age and their expressions of sexuality and gender.
“Comparing to men, women were attacked for being what they are — women, black, elderly, transgender — while men candidates were offended mostly for their professional performance as politicians and public administrators,” InternetLab wrote, noting the exception of male candidates who were also targets of hate speech and aggressions for being elderly and LGBTQI+.
InternetLab’s findings influenced legislation passed in August 2021 that criminalizes the dissemination of false content about candidates during the election campaign period. The organization continues to develop tools to counter online gender-based violence, such as a lexicon of Portuguese hate speech, selected in a competition organized by Twitter, and training materials to help candidates and parties fight political violence based on gender.
Freedom Online Coalition
The findings and solutions emerging from IDRC-supported research on gender-based violence supports Canada’s leadership in the Freedom Online Coalition, a group of 34 governments working together to advance digital freedom. Chaired by Canada in 2022, the coalition is redoubling its commitment to advance Internet freedom and human rights online, including countering online violence against women and LGBTQI+ populations.
IDRC is partnering with the coalition’s support unit to expand the engagement of Global South experts in shaping norms and national legislation to address misinformation and gender-based-violence online.
Building a feminist digital sphere
Several more strands of IDRC-supported research are contributing knowledge to promote an equitable and feminist digital sphere. Based at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy at the University of Toronto, the Citizen Lab leads research and capacity building on threats to freedom of expression online that affect LGBTQI+ communities in the Global South, with a focus on internet censorship.
The Feminist Internet Research Network engaged leading feminist researchers from around the world to explore critical issues in our digital ecosystem, including online gender-based violence. IDRC’s support for this field-building network is helping to reveal the critical gaps in the research and policymaking needed to foster an internet that enables gender equality in low- and middle-income countries. For example, research in five African cities documents the prevalence, experiences and responses to online gender-based violence against women.
At stake with this form of violence and harassment is not only women’s full participation in the public digital sphere but also gender equality in the physical world.
“While the internet is a mirror of social dynamics, it increasingly helps to create and cement influential narratives that impact societies more broadly — in both positive and negative ways,” says Ruhiya Seward, senior program officer at IDRC. “Opportunities and threats to women’s, girls’, and LGBTQI+ communities’ empowerment can be found in this circular dynamic between the digital and physical worlds.”
IDRC continues to support research to explore how governments, the private sector and civil society organizations can combat gender-based violence and harassment online and to strike the appropriate balance between online transparency and the privacy rights of users.
Contributor: Ruhiya Kristine Seward, senior program officer at IDRC
- A global survey delves into the online experiences of gender-based violence of women and LGBTQI+ communities.
- Research in Brazil and India explores legal and policy responses to online sexist hate speech and intimidation.
- IDRC support for research on technology-assisted gender-based violence aims to build a feminist digital sphere that enables gender equality.