Online harassment is a very complex problem – the causes of which are rooted in the wider social and political power dynamics that put women and trans individuals at the receiving end of violence and discrimination. Not only are societal norms structured in a way that makes women more susceptible to offline harassment, but all forms of online violence and discrimination, including gendered online harassment, are also closely intertwined with broader geopolitics and are a part of the wider debates around misinformation campaigns and fake news. All of these factors make gendered online harassment not just about gender, thereby increasing the complexity and sophistication required to provide effective remedies.
The complexity of the problem is also exacerbated by the lack of current available holistic and comprehensive remedies. When social media companies fail to provide sufficient safeguards in the form of content moderation for women and trans individuals to feel safe while using their products, then these companies are deemed neglectful – as was the case in this research. Yet when these companies do provide strict content moderation, then they are criticised for stifling the freedom of expression. This context makes the following questions pertinent: Whose place is it to address this issue? Governments? Social media platforms? Communities? All or others? By providing a thorough overview of the available resources and in-depth interviews, this report has attempted to contribute to a complex debate and helps to remind our community that effective remedies to online harassment lie at the intersection of technology, policy and cultural change.
The final challenge in addressing online harassment is the mere fact that this harassment is not only in the form of content. Online harassment is also exercised through gendered surveillance, in which politically-active women who are investigating government and private sector abuse, organised crime or campaigning for different political agendas, are hacked and surveilled through their devices. Sensitive information gathered through their devices is leveraged for political manipulation and extortion or used to cause a chilling effect. How can we approach developing a response to such online harassment that comes in these less traditionally-recognised forms?
In line with this political framing, our overview finds that:
- A globally-agreed upon framework for defining online harassment is lacking; this in turn presents yet another obstacle to be faced by politically-active women when searching for support to respond to online harassment.
- On an ongoing basis, personalised and gendered attacks inhibit the ability of politically-active women to practice their freedom of expression, particularly in relation to their political advocacy.
- Politically-active women frequently take a break from their political advocacy as a coping strategy to deal with online harassment. “Self-censorship” affects a large number of politically-active women who experience online harassment and digital violence.
- Current solutions to addressing online harassment fail to account for the extent of complexity involved, and are therefore unable to comprehensively respond to or address context-specific challenges. Overarching solutions that bring together social, technical and legal remedies are lacking.
- Politically-active women reach out to each other for support and solidarity due to the lack of context-specific, survivor-centric and rapid solutions, and this makes them vulnerable at the face of heightened risk. The current approach to community guidelines by social media companies is ineffective in maintaining the safety and wellbeing of politically-active women online.
- Politically-active women refrain from asking public institutions or tech companies for support when faced with online harassment, as the current responses are often counterproductive, re-traumatising, or even punitive.
- The community guidelines and other types of content moderation criteria developed by social media companies are opaque and ineffective in maintaining the safety and wellbeing of politically-active women.
- Effective remedies to online harassment are possible, although finding such solutions is not a priority on the part of governments or tech companies. Such solutions should be designed at the intersection of accountability, context-specific debate and collaboration with politically-active women who are at the receiving end of this particular form of violence, as well as with civil society organisations, governments and tech companies.
The lived experiences of politically-active women have been guiding the compiling of this research and they are reflected in the vast amount of stories, experiences and strategies generously shared with Tactical Tech. We are grateful to all of the women who took the time to share with us their stories, including mitigation strategies for dealing with online harassment, to contribute to a global discussion and efforts to create free, safe and just digital spaces.
We hope that this overview will be welcomed by different spheres of a global community of individuals who demonstrate their resilience and strength while confronting systemic online gender-based violence. We hope that it will contribute to the pursuit of co-creating safe, enabling, joyful digital spaces for women’s political participation.