The culture of sexism and misogyny embedded in society extends to the online sphere; the ease of communication and anonymity provided by online tools even amplifies it. A multi-country research project, ‘End violence: Women’s rights and safety online’, conducted by the Association for Progressive Communications found that 41 per cent of cases of online violence were perpetrated by someone known to the survivor, and 60 per cent of cases were not investigated by authorities. The same study found that social media lacked transparency around processes of reporting and redress.
The Take Back the Tech! campaign mapped out 1126 cases from 2012-2014. They identified general categories of women who experience technology-based VAW namely, women in intimate relationships whose partners have become abusive, professionals with public profiles involved in public communication (activists, writers, artists etc.) and survivors of physical assault (often rape or intimate partner abuse). As online violence is often not recognised as ‘real’ violence, it is important to see violence as a continuum, and online abuse is on this as much as offline incidents of violence, as unequal gender power relations that are embedded in society are replicated online.
The Internet facilitates the growing number of expressions of hate, incitements to violence due to the ease of posting anonymous comments. This is particularly true in the case of gendered hate speech, which can restrict the free speech of women online. In India, prominent women on Twitter who express political opinions are routinely targets of online hate speech. Sonia Faleiro writes about the changes that took place on platforms like Twitter with the run up to the general election in 2014, when the BJP encouraged thousands of volunteers to flood social media with right-wing rhetoric. The othering of women and minorities on the platform make them targets of online threats, often graphic rape or death threats.
In acts of everyday abuse, the tools of the Internet are used to silence, intimidate, stalk and harass women. Take the case of how trolls on Twitter spewed abuse at activist Kavitha Krishnan after she commented on the Prime Minister’s #SelfieWithDaughter campaign. An actor, Shruti Seth, also commented on the campaign and received a flood of hate, ironically, as the campaign’s intent was supposedly to promote respect for women (daughters). Similarly, activist and poet Meena Kandasamy was threatened with gang-rape and acid attacks for tweeting about attending a festival where beef was served. While men are targets of abuse and trolling in digital spaces as well, with women the threats become violent and sexual.
The Internet has become the means through which people navigate the world, it is where they work as well as play. This is especially true for women whose cultural backgrounds are conservative and restrictive of their offline mobility and speech. The Internet can be liberating for women under these conditions, as it blurs the lines of the public and private. However, when the digital space becomes unsafe, it can impact women’s full, active participation in both online and offline life. It is problematic to view abusive speech as simply part of the online experience, discussions about it often prompt the question of why women remain on platforms if they find the abuse too unpleasant. However, women have been silenced or driven off platforms when sustained abuse has become too much to handle. While ‘free speech’ is constantly invoked in discussions about online abuse, a case can be made for legitimate limits to free speech, especially when it silences the already disadvantaged.
Digital violence can also easily spill into the offline world, especially with trends like ‘doxxing’ or ‘swatting’ targets of online harassment. Swatting is the practice of making false reports to the police with the intention of having a heavily armed response team sent to the person’s home (a SWAT team, hence the name). Doxxing refers to the public release of a person’s personal information without their consent, this could be their full legal name, phone number, home address etc. While the information may (or may not) be found through legitimate public sources, it is published maliciously, with a tacit invitation for people to do what they want with the information. This has had serious repercussions. Women have had to leave their homes out of fear for their safety and cancel public appearances after being doxxed and threatened with violence.
The non-consensual distribution of intimate images and videos on the Internet is another way in which women are targeted online. This brings up the multi-layered nature of consent. For example, the recording of a consensual sexual act without knowledge or consent (which was also later distributed), or an abusive partner or ex-partner uploading or distributing images/videos that were sent to him or taken by him consensually, but the distribution is non-consensual. Take the hacking of several female celebrities’ iCloud accounts, and the distribution of hundreds of nude pictures without their consent. Here, while the creation of the images were with the person’s consent, access to and publication of the images were a violation of their rights. There are also cases where non-consensual sexual acts are recorded and circulated, known as ‘rape videos’. There are violations on multiple levels here; the rape, the filming of the rape, and the distribution of the same. A recent example of this took place in Brazil, where a 16 year old girl was allegedly gang-raped, after which some of the attackers uploaded images of the rape on Twitter, and a video was widely circulated on social media.
What we can do
Violence against women and marginalised subjects manifests in multiple ways online, and the uniquely gendered nature of this harassment has been recognised and resisted by civil society. APC’s Feminist Principles of the Internet state that “Violence online and technology-related violence are part of the continuum of gender-based violence. The misogynistic attacks, threats, intimidation, and policing experienced by women and queers LGBTQI people is are real, harmful, and alarming. It is our collective responsibility as different internet stakeholders to prevent, respond to, and resist this violence.”
Women have used various strategies to combat online harassment. This could take the form of ignoring threats, blocking or engaging with abusive users, and in extreme cases, reporting the abuse to the police. The Take Back The Tech! campaign highlights how technology-related violence keeps women from enjoying fully the freedoms afforded by digital spaces, and advocates for women to take control of technology to prevent violence. The #YesAllWomen Twitter campaign which had women from all over the world share stories of everyday harassment and misogyny that they faced, and initiatives like GotStared.At that raise awareness on issues of violence and gendered discrimination are examples of how online tools may be used to combat gender-related violence, both online and offline.
Online platforms have a big part to play in maintaining safe and enabling environments for women and other marginalised subjects. Reddit formulated new community policies in 2015 which acknowledged how harassing behaviour can make online spaces unsafe for people, it reads “instead of promoting free expression of ideas, we are seeing our open policies stifling free expression; people avoid participating for fear of their personal and family safety”, and introduced a process to report abuse on the site. Facebook and Twitter already have mechanisms in place for blocking profiles and reporting abuse. While any censorship is not ideal, and these processes have been misused to silence people, it is still necessary to have some system in place that can address real concerns of online harassment and abuse. The Guardian conducted a study on the comments section on their own website, where they found that the writers who received the most comments that were blocked by moderators for violating the website’s guidelines were all female, non-heterosexual or non-white, while those who received the least amounts of such comments were all male. This is hardly surprising, but goes to show how deeply embedded attitudes of sexism and racism manifest online. Studies of this kind by platforms are important as they raise important issues of exclusion in digital spaces.
When it comes to law enforcement agencies, women’s experiences of reporting online violence is generally met with indifference, or ignorance about the platforms on which the abuse takes place. In India, the police are not particularly well-equipped to deal with cases of online violence. Even though cyber laws came into existence in 2000, the first conviction for cyber-stalking was in 2015. At the same time, speech that is critical of the government or political players is monitored and often punished under draconian laws. Walking the line between protecting free speech while penalising hate speech has not always been successful, as we have seen in India with Section 66A of the IT Act. This was justified in the name of protecting women’s rights, but was routinely deployed by the state to suppress free speech. Existing laws also tend to be protectionist and guided by notions of ‘morality’, rather recognising the nuances of consent. For example, under the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act of 1986, the “publication or distribution in any manner, of any material depicting a woman as a sexual object” is a crime, and Section 67A of the IT Act criminalises the “publishing or transmitting of material containing a sexually explicit act in electronic form”.
These laws do not make any mention of consent, or women’s own right to assert themselves as independent individuals with sexual desires. Richa Kaul Padte, in a paper on gender, online harassment and the law in India asks what is actually being protected under these laws, women, or an idea of womanhood. In the same paper, she points out that Section 66E of the IT Act is progressive in that it places consent at the heart of the criminalisation of the act: “Whoever, intentionally or knowingly captures, publishes or transmits the image of a private area of any person without his or her consent, under circumstances violating the privacy of that person, shall be punished…”. As civil society in India, there is a need to demand laws that will further the cause of gender justice, while recognising women’s choice and autonomy.