Section 5: Why is it challenging to respond to online harassment?

    Online harassment targeting politically-active women on a global scale remains a challenging issue. Recent scandals, including Cambridge Analytica, have reemphasised the importance of digital data in formal political processes. In the aftermath of such scandals, social media companies are increasingly faced with pressure to be held accountable for not only how they deal with the privacy of their users, but also broader policies such as content moderation and commercial guidelines.

    Yet the business models of tech companies rely upon selling users ads, rather than on ensuring that their platforms provide necessary safeguards which enable everyone, including politically-active women, to express themselves freely. This is compounded by the failure of tech companies to acknowledge that the impact of their technologies is not neutral and that their services have political consequences; the divergence over this starting point presents a real obstacle to defining and responding to online harassment.

    In other words, because tech companies are reluctant to take responsibility for the political consequences of their business models, online harassment, an issue deeply gendered and political, risks not receiving the adequate attention it requires.

    Despite efforts of, and advocacy by, global civil society on specific forms of online abuse, including gendered slurs and gendered surveillance, social media companies and policy institutions are just grabbing the magnitude of the problem following two recent trends: Firstly, from Brazil to the US, Turkey to Cambodia social media platforms have become instruments of political manipulation and propaganda either through misinformation campaigns or what is commonly referred to in the media as fake news. For example, recently in the Philippines, Maria Ressa, the influential journalist and cofounder of the country’s largest online newspaper, Rappler, became the target of multiple misinformation campaigns following her newspaper’s release of leaked recordings of a phone conversation between Presidents Rodrigo Duterte and Donald Trump about the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The targeted misinformation campaigns, which came in the form of fake news, not only placed Maria Ressa at risk, but also attempted to tarnish her credibility and legitimacy. Most hashtags and Facebook pages related to Ressa portrayed her as a spy and a traitor, and included gendered slurs that specifically targeted her as a woman journalist. Through this case, we see the complexity of online harassment in that it highlights the role of misinformation campaigns – rather than just slurs alone – in online harassment. Similarly, journalist Amberin Zaman from Turkey was subjected to ongoing misinformation campaigns by pro-government mobs that portrayed her as a US spy and an immoral woman. This occurred following her independent reporting of the military conflict between the armed PKK and the Turkish government in the predominantly Kurdish Southeast of the country.

    Online harassment targets the legacies of politically-active women

    Politically-active women rely on their credibility to establish legitimacy and to protect their legacy. Recent misinformation campaigns targeting two assassinated women human rights defenders in South America demonstrate that wider geopolitical interests are complicit in tarnishing the legacy of politically-active women. In Honduras, where the government has colluded with non-state actors to crack down on those indigenous struggles defending land and territory from extractive companies, misinformation campaigns targeted the legacy of Berta Cáceres shortly after her assassination. Adversaries used social media to develop and spread a large-scale misinformation campaign that claimed Cáceres’ murder was a “passion crime.” In doing so, they attempted to present her murder as disconnected to her political struggle and thus detract from the underlying political motive of her assassination. A New York Court is now alleging otherwise. Similarly, when Mariella Franco was assassinated in Brazil in March 2018, pro-government mobs quickly used social media platforms to spread misinformation about the cause of the assassination, arguing that it was result of a crime of passion between Franco and a drug lord. Maria Franco has long been at risk due to her public advocacy against the military occupation of the Favellas and the extrajudicial killings of people of colour across Brazil. In both cases, two high profile politically-active women were murdered and adversaries posthumously weaponised their gendered identity through misinformation campaigns to discredit their political work. This was also done to shift attention away from their activism and from the deeply inequitable reasons for which they were targeted.

    These cases reveal that gendered online harassment is closely intertwined with broader geopolitical debates and interests, through which digital technologies are deliberately manipulated by private companies and even foreign governments in order to stifle domestic politics. In particular, through online propaganda tactics, the gender identities and sexual orientation of politically-active women are weaponised and their work discredited, which in turn is used to consolidate the interests of governments and non-state actors. This highlights two key points: 1) that online harassment extends far beyond slurs and 2) that the complexity of mutually-reinforcing tactics involved in, and the scale of political interests upheld by, online harassment make it very challenging to address at its root. Moreover, any comprehensive and globally-agreed upon definition of online harassment will need to acknowledge the deeply-rooted power imbalances through which online harassment proliferates.

    Within this context, three themes emerge as challenges in responding to online harassment:

    Firstly, there is the challenge of developing context-specific solutions that consider the historical and current inequities faced by women. Harassment is a social and political problem deeply entrenched within wider power dynamics that discriminate against women and trans* individuals; the online version of this harassment is compounded through digital technologies. Therefore, the responses we design in combating online harassment cannot be detached from historical inequities that have targeted women and the root causes of systemic violence and discrimination. Both the unique and the historic elements of online harassment make it extremely difficult for governments and/or social media companies to tackle the issue on their own, although social media companies do currently maintain a larger say in regulating content on their platforms than governments.

    Secondly, there is the challenge of moving beyond the discussion of speech, which has thus far eclipsed the debate. Addressing online harassment is complicated by the fact that the currently available analysis, whether legal or academic, largely concerns speech and the regulation of speech. This is despite the fact that the forms and scope of online harassment extend far beyond that of speech. The mainstream analysis largely ignores that there are non-speech forms of online harassment, for example those connected to hacking the devices of politically-active women as well as surveillance.

    Thirdly, there is the challenge of overcoming the current lack of political will and lack of collaborative initiatives to prioritise women-centred solutions. Online harassment is closely intertwined with wider geopolitics, in which digital technologies and digital data are leveraged by state and non-state actors to manipulate formal and informal political processes. As discussed in previous examples in this subsection, women journalists and high profile political figures are continuously harassed online through the use of misinformation campaigns and fake news globally in an attempt to destabilise and prevent their work , which at times puts their lives at risk. Due to these complex factors, a holistic analysis of online harassment requires the intersection of geopolitics, technology and social policy - the implications of which are that governments, private sector and civil society organisations must collaborate with one another to provide sustainable solutions.

    Despite these challenges, there are already a number of (attempted) responses to address online harassment, whether in the form of human moderation, artificial intelligence solutions or legal remedies. The next section presents these responses to counter online harassment and questions their efficacy.

    US gendered violence

    The Guardian

    Independent reporting



    Amnesty International

    Caceres assassination

    Association for Women’s Rights in Development

    Rodrigo Duterte