The gendered aspects of online harassment have been brought to the attention of intergovernmental bodies through research and documentation. Both the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women and the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders affirmed that online harassment strives to intimidate and silence women who use online platforms to advocate for fundemental rights. Even women who are not necessarily politically-active face disproportionate harassment online. A 2014 report by the PEW Research Center found that women are much more likely to be exposed to online harassment, while adding that “young women,” are especially vulnerable and “experience particularly severe forms of online harassment.” Their findings are in line with a 2014 report by the Association for Progressive Communications, which identified that “women 18-30 years old and younger are the most vulnerable online.” While these reports focus on women as a broad category, our in-depth interviews indicate that women who use digital technologies for political purposes, either in the form of human rights advocacy or exposing government abuse and corruption, have a unique set of challenges that increase their level of vulnerability and thus require special attention.
20 out of 25 participants in our in-depth interviews expressed that the lack of a globally-agreed upon framework for defining online harassment hinders their efforts to reach out for support.
With their freedom of expression restricted in such cases, online harassment poses a major obstacle to their meaningful and deliberate political participation .
Within a newly-published report by Amnesty International, entitled Toxic Twitter, Amnesty International has linked the violence and abuse that many women experience on Twitter to incidences of self-censorship, reductions in their interactions, or the decision to leave the platform altogether. In November 2017, Amnesty International commissioned an IPSOS MORI poll looking at the experiences of women between the ages of 18 and 55 in Denmark, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, Spain, Sweden, the UK and the US, which revealed that %46 of the women who experienced abuse or harassment said it was sexist or misogynistic in nature.
Similarly, 19 of the 25 politically-active women who participated in our in-depth interviews confirmed that their activism was directly disrupted through online violence; many of them have felt compelled to take a temporary or permanent break from their political advocacy work on social media platforms due to online harassment. Often these women decided to do so as a precautionary step to sustain their psychosocial wellbeing or to prevent anticipated physical harm as a result of ongoing online harassment.
Relatedly, “self-censorship” was another cross-cutting theme identified throughout our interviews. Far from being an isolated act, self-censorship is the consequence of targeted and ongoing online harassment and digital violence that politically-active women experience. In some cases, self-censorship may also be tied to anticipated online support.(Interview, December 2017) For example, one of our interview participants in Asia confirmed that the individual adjusted their online speech depending on how much support they perceived from their peers online, so that they would have a network of support on which to rely throughout online attacks.
Despite growing evidence and documentation that technology amplifies, facilitates or exacerbates new forms of violence, frameworks that respond to this violence, such as through legal, policy or psycho-social support, are lacking. For example, in their joint report, Coding Rights and Internetlab state that “one can no longer easily separate the reactions that occur in digital media from those offline: both are a continuum, as are the expressions of violence that occur in these environments.”Given that technology allows for unique and consolidated techniques of silencing, destabilising or attacking politically-active women, gendered online harassment requires our most immediate attention. We still have yet to see social media platforms, national or international institutions position the issue of online harassment as a pressing policy priority - one that requires urgent attention and resources. Rather, the response has been sporadic and in isolation.
While public institutions and civil society groups are still struggling to construct an overarching framework that takes into account the context-specific implications of online harassment, there has been progress made on all fronts to tackle this extremely complex form of violence and discrimination. Therefore, the next section will highlight unique challenges in responding to online harassment.
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights