Online harassment is still a contentious issue in academic and legal circles, where it is often detached from the lived experiences of women who lie at the intersection of historically-excluded identities. Online harassment, online abuse, violence against women, cyber harassment, tech-related violence against women and even hate speech are often used interchangeably and without adequate clarity. In 2014, the Pew Research Center concluded that “At a basic level, there is no clear legal definition as to what constitutes ‘online harassment.‘” This remains true, although several civil society, academic and intergovernmental institutions have attempted to draw their own definitions and bring structure to this debate.Pew Research Center itself developed parameters to define online harassment in 2017, narrowing the definition of the concept to include six behaviours: offensive name calling, purposeful embarrassment, stalking, physical threats, harassment over a sustained period of time, and sexual harassment.4
Several civil society initiatives have also attempted to address the challenges of defining online harassment and contribute to a universal definition – though there have been differing approaches. The Association for Progressive Communication’s (APC) Women’s Rights Program and the Take Back the Tech 5 both stress the value of using the term, ‘online gender based violence,’ as a concept to highlight the gendered nature of attacks and to emphasise inclusion of the trans community. On the other hand, the Women's Media Center (WMC) deliberately chooses to refer to this phenomenon as ‘online abuse, in order to stress the distinction between online harassment and cybersexism/cyber misogyny. WMC have also developed a list of definitions related to harassment, which is informed primarily by a US legal perspective.
Freedom of expression activists have historically countered efforts to develop a globally-agreed upon framework for defining and responding to online harassment and/or national legislation, due to legitimate fears that strict regulation will hinder dissent.6 Countering this, there is a global movement of scholars, women and trans identified journalists, human rights lawyers, grassroots campaigners and feminist activists who call for a more contextual and rights based approach for defining and implementing policies pertaining to freedom of expression. This group brings a nuanced understanding of freedom of expression, raising the issue that freedom of expression is not an absolute right, nor is it practiced equally by all social groups, and that protecting it may require certain measures to be taken.
Relatedly, all politically-active women interviewed for this research unilaterally agreed that their freedom of expression is targeted on a continuous basis through personalised and gendered attacks that strongly correlate with their political advocacy, which in turn renders them less likely to express themselves.
In an effort to begin defining the realms of online harassment, in 2015, the UN Broadband Commission along with the UN Women published their report on online harassment coining the term Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG). The following year, in 2016, Data and Society published a study that included a survey of online harassment, digital abuse and cyberstalking in America, which exposed the complex dynamics of online harassment as a deliberate tactic; however they did not coin a globally applicable definition. The Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard also recently published a series of essays on harmful speech, which provides a comprehensive overview of harmful speech and includes global case studies. Although several studies provide space for cases and examples from the Global South, overall there needs to be greater emphasis and analysis on the experiences of historically-excluded communities, particularly communities in non-US and non-Western European contexts, who remain disproportionately affected by online harassment.
Based on an extensive desk review and our in-depth interviews with politically-active women, Tactical Tech has developed our own definition of online harassment as the following: Gendered online harassment, is a combination of tactics exercised through digital technologies through a sustained and repeated manner to harass, intimidate, silence or cause distress on women.This definition does not claim to be absolute or universal, but rather attempts to steer the reader towards a more structuralised and nuanced understanding of the phenomenon.
However, a definition alone is not enough to analyse and respond to gendered online harassment; responding requires a more nuanced and deepened context-specific approach to the gendered aspects of online harassment. Consequently, the next section explores the significance of addressing gendered online harassment.
5 Take Back the Tech identifies the different forms of violence as: a) Online harassment ranging from abusive SMS messages to tracking movement through geolocation b) Intimate partner violence, which includes for example, threats to disclose intimate communications or "revenge porn" c) Culturally justified violence, ranging from forwarding a sexist joke to founding a Facebook group that promotes rape d) Sexual assault through which technology is used to lure women into situations that result in rape or other forms of physical violence
Women's Media Center
Cyber Violence Report