On a global scale, women who are politically-active are perceived to be challenging traditional societal roles. Online harassment is used by both states and non-state actors to deliberately shrink the space in which politically-active women use digital technologies to express themselves, politically organise or carry out their work. Hence, they face a unique set of challenges both online and offline that is a direct consequence of their gender identity and participation in political struggles.
Gendered online harassment, understood as a combination of tactics exercised through digital technologies in a sustained and repeated manner to harass, intimidate, silence or cause women distress, is used by governments and non-state actors to systematically silence and intimidate women.
Individuals belonging to historically-excluded identities – including women, women identified, trans* or intersex individuals as well as people marginalised due to their sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity or religion - are frequently prevented from taking part in online political debates. This has the effect of stifling political debate and potential solutions that could address the politics of exclusion, as envisioned by those most deeply impacted. Accordingly, it is time for an urgent critical debate that results in concrete action in order to address the online harassment faced by politically-active women.
In 2016, as part of its multi-year focus on the online harassment of politically-active women, Tactical Tech set out to explore how online harassment affects politically-active women’s freedom of expression and right to participation within formal and informal political processes. For the purposes of this research, the term ‘politically-active women’ refers to a broad category of women, including women-identified human rights defenders (WHRDs) as well as trans, gender queer and/or non-binary activists, journalists, bloggers, community organisers, members of local and regional civil society, and artists with a political focus.
All politically-active women that we interviewed for this research unilaterally expressed that the nature of the online harassment they experience is gendered.
This overview is based on reviews of prominent research and analysis currently put forth by leading academic institutions and civil society organisations.1 It is a precursor to a larger project that Tactical Tech will carry out starting from July 2018 to assess the wider ecosystem of tools and strategies utilised by states and non-state actors to silence and intimidate politically-active women. Providing an overview of the current landscape of research and analysis on online harassment is necessary as it will ultimately inform the development of our own unique methodology for our work. Our initial scoping indicate three main findings:
Narrow scope in terms of tactics examined - Most research concerning gendered online harassment examines gendered slurs and threats targeting women, without providing sufficient attention to the wider ecosystem of data and digital technologies that impose restrictions on freedom of expression. Online harassment assumes many forms that are much broader than the use of slurs; it is also exercised through tactics such as surveillance and blackmailing in an attempt to psychologically harass women to such an extent that they are unable or unwilling to do their work. This is also known as the chilling effect. Our upcoming research project in July 2018 will provide a balanced analysis of the different types and tactics of online harassment to highlight this broader ecosystem.
Narrow scope in terms of geographies examined - The current mainstream debate provides disproportionate visibility and space for US and Western Europe contexts, and provides an inadequate number of cases from the Global South. Our overview seeks to counterbalance this narrow geographical lens by placing an emphasis on cases from the Global South. All 25 politically-active women interviewed for this overview are from the Global South.
Narrow scope in terms of political work examined - There is also a lack of holistic analysis providing an in-depth look at the unique set of challenges experienced by politically-active women. Much of the current available analysis treats women as a homogenous subject, and in particular fails to examine online harassment vis-à-vis the role of women in their varied occupations as journalists, investigators, human rights lawyers or activists associated with social movements and civil society organisations. In contrast, our overview provides a differentiated understanding of how women in these different roles are affected by online harassment, rather than considering women as an overarching broad category.
This overview also reveals important tension points in terms of power and agency: those who are trying to define the problem - namely policy makers and technology companies - have a much bigger say in setting the parameters of online harassment than those affected by it, who are politically-active women.
Targeted communities are unable to join the mainstream narrative or frame their needs, due to the lack of a commonly-agreed upon set of terminology as well as the technical complexity of the debate itself. In its current state, the lack of a clear definition directly impedes discussion that aims to reach a common understanding of this phenomenon. It is, after all, important to develop a common understanding of definitions from a legal and contextual perspective when describing actions of violence committed online.
Online harassment is an exceptionally complex and difficult phenomenon to tackle, and there is not one single answer or solution. Hence, this overview aims to contribute to the evolving discussion and debates on online harassment. We hope that this overview will provoke a deeper examination of the practical, technological and policy dimensions of the issue.
A Lexicon of Online Harassment
Responding to online harassment is an incredibly difficult and increasingly vital task in today’s world where a growing portion of communication occurs through digital technologies. While the first step in responding to online harassment is developing an understanding of what the term refers to, there is still an unclear understanding of what exactly online harassment is, how it proliferates, who is affected by it, and what factors enable it. A number of reasons account for this lack of definitional clarity. First of all, most of the terms associated with the concept of online harassment have changed and evolved over the past decade, as academics, practitioners and policy makers have developed new understandings and approaches. Secondly, most definitions are either too academic, legal or technical, which makes it difficult for everyday users of digital technologies to easily understand this fundamental problem. This inaccessible language in turn affects the ability of everyday users to meaningfully and safely interact with others. Prior to outlining this overview, we will therefore provide a lexicon of key concepts that are associated with online harassment.
The following terms are comprehensively combined definitions put forth by Tactical Tech, based on an extensive desk review of books, academic literature and NGO reports on this important topic; these sources can be accessed through the following footnote.2For each definition below, Tactical Tech has comprehensively combined inputs from a number of varying resources to create digestible, easy to understand and reader-friendly definitions.
The lexicon is divided into two parts. The first section provides a brief definition of key concepts that are useful in understanding online harassment. In the second section, we explore various tactics that adversaries use to target politically-active women. Rather than reading this as the source of supreme and comprehensive definitions, the purpose of the below lexicon is to make it easier for everyday users to navigate this complex issue and to prompt a conversation on the importance of defining online harassment and its associated terms and tactics.
|Online harassment||The use of the digital technologies to harass, threaten and/or attack a person or community|
|Cyber harassment||Relating to all kinds of harassment that take place on the internet and are exercised through digital devices|
|Online gendered harassment||Harassment of individuals and/or communities based on their gender identity, specifically targeting women, trans*, queer, non-binary and gender non-conforming individuals|
|Online abuse||Abusive behaviour incited through digital technologies to attack, threaten, intimidate or incite violence on individuals and/or communities|
|Tech-mediated violence against women/ tech-related violence against Women (VAW)/ online violence against women||An umbrella term referring to all types and strategies of violence targeting women online through the use of digital technologies, which includes regulating their use of digital devices, limiting their ownership of devices, surveilling their online activity, as well as online harassment and abuse|
|Online Gender Based Violence||Violence incited on women, trans*, queer, non-binary and gender non-conforming individuals as a direct consequence of their gender identity through the use of digital technologies|
|Cyber violence against women and girls||A term specifically established and used by the UN Broadband Commission and UN Women to refer to online harassment targeting women and girls|
|TACTICS||MEANING||HOW DOES THIS TACTIC TARGET POLITICALLY-ACTIVE WOMEN?|
|Account hijacking||The process of an account (whether email, social media, computer account or cloud accounts) being stolen or hijacked by an individual or group||Within the context of our research, several women shared with us that their devices were hacked, and that their adversaries used their personal information to take control over their accounts. Several interviewees explained this was done to access their sensitive information, spread false news or to psychologically harass the user.|
|Cyber bullying||The use of electronic communication to bully a person, typically by sending messages of an intimidating or threatening nature||In order to intimidate and strong-arm women into revealing information or committing certain acts, adversaries cyber bully women through digital devices in the form of ongoing and consistent negative messaging. Several women who participated in our research expressed that they received ongoing threatening messages that called on them to drop their investigations, human rights advocacy or political campaigns.|
|Cyber stalking||The use of digital technologies to track an individual and use their personal information to harass, intimidate and/or threaten the individual||Cyber stalking is usually carried out to inflict a ‘chilling effect’ – the act of discouraging individuals from practicing their rights - on individuals who use digital devices. Several women who participated in this research revealed that they received messages from anonymous social media accounts that said, “We know what you have been up to” or “We know where your family lives” - all of which were gathered by adversaries through consistent cyber stalking.|
|Catfishing||The use of false online identities or fake profiles to tempt someone into a relationship||Several women who participated in our research expressed that they interacted with users who revealed false identities to trap them into sharing information about their sensitive research.|
|Dangerous speech||Speech that has the capacity to catalyse mass violence||Several women who participated in our research live in contexts where there are tensions between different religious sects. They expressed that pro-government actors have used dangerous speech in the form of misinformation campaigns in order to mobilise hatred and potentially generate violence towards certain groups.|
|Online defamation||A process used to facilitate online attacks to negatively affect an individual or community’s reputation through slander and/or libel||The majority of women who participated in our research expressed that they experienced online defamation designed to undermine their legitimacy and credibility in an attempt to discredit their work.|
|Distributed Denial of Service Attacks (DDOS)||A technical attack where multiple requests are sent to a website server in an attempt to overwhelm the server causing the site to go offline||Several websites of politically-active women or groups associated with them have been targets of DDOS attacks, which significantly impacted their operating capacity. Fighting back against DDOS attacks require resources, financial and technical, which politically-active women often lack.|
|Doxing (Dropping Dox or Docs)||A tactic used to intimidate or increase the physical risk of individuals by threatening to release their private information, particularly their home or work addresses or ID documents||Revealing sensitive personal information is an extremely dangerous act committed by adversaries, which put women at physical risk. For example, there have been cases where hackers released information about the work/home addresses of pro-choice activists in order to place them at physical risk or to induce a chilling effect on their work.|
|Reporting fake profiles||A tactic used to prompt the removal of a profile or page to silence individuals or communities on social media platforms, particularly on Facebook, by reporting an individual profile as fake when in fact it isn’t||Several politically-active women had their profiles reported as fake by mobs in an attempt to prevent them from carrying out their work using digital platforms and to stifle their online presence.|
|Flaming||Sending an individual or group hostile messages including threats and insults||Several online forums, hashtags and campaigns by politically-active women have been targeted with gendered slurs and misinformation in an attempt to distract attention from advocacy campaigns or key messages.|
|Gendered surveillance||Surveillance targeting individuals as a direct consequence of their gender identity and/or sexual orientation||This type of surveillance targets women through their gender identity and sexual orientation. For example, there are several cases where politically-active women who are whistleblowers or journalists have had their devices hacked, and images of them in their homes sent to their accounts to enable blackmailing, extortion or to cause a chilling effect.|
|Google bombing||As a direct result of Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Google bombing works by causing a particular site – often one that is designed to be defamatory to a subject - to rank high in a Google search. The site could have irrelevant or negative links about a person or community that it seeks to target||Through Google bombing, the search of a person yields irrelevant or negative content on websites as the top result, as harassers seek to highly rank negative content related to a person in a search engine. In the past, adversaries used Google bombing to discredit the efforts of women who work on contentious issues, such as religious violence, minority rights, or access to sexual and reproductive health rights. Google bombing provides space for misinformation and slander in online searches, and therefore effectively stifles debate and spreads false information.|
|Harmful speech||Different types of speech that often overlap and intersect, and cause different harms, including, but not limited to, demeaning or attacking a person, people or a community as a result of their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or disability||Several women who participated in our research expressed the type of harmful speech that they experienced online have caused them to inflict harm on themselves or their communities.|
|Hate speech||Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that incites discrimination, hostility or violence||Hate speech is speech that attacks a person or group on the basis of attributes such as race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disability, or gender. It is regulated by international law as well as domestic legislation in some countries.|
|Honey trap||The practice of using romantic and/or sexual relationships to amass information about the individual in order to use it for political or extortion purposes||Honey trapping is an investigative practice that uses romantic and/or sexual relationships for political or monetary purpose to the detriment of one party involved in this romantic or sexual affair. Later on, this information is used to leverage political favours or manipulate politically-active women, which may result in politically-active women temporarily or permanently leaving advocacy, political campaigns or investigations.|
|Identity theft/ impersonation||The theft of an individual or group's identity or the act of impersonating them online||Identity theft is the deliberate use of someone else's identity, usually as a technique to gain financial advantage or credit and other profits in the other person's name, which comes at the expense of the other person.|
|Non-consensual image sharing/ Non-consensual distribution of images / revenge porn||The publishing of intimate photos or videos of an individual without their consent. This frequently involves revealing sexually explicit images or videos of a person posted on the Internet and is typically carried out by a former sexual partner, without consent of the subject and in order to inflict emotional, physical or reputational harm||Non-consensual image sharing includes all forms of images of politically-active women being shared without their consent. Although the media places a lot of emphasis on the publishing of nude imagery of politically-active women, around the world the non-consensual sharing of images is not limited to sharing pornographic images. It is also exercised through a number of methods, which includes, but is not limited to, releasing photos from demonstrations, conferences and other political events.|
|Sextortion||The use of intimate images or information as coercion for sexual exploitation||This tactic is a form of sexual abuse where women are coerced into engaging in sexual acts without consent through ongoing blackmail.|
|Swating||The act of placing a fake call to the police in order to trick them into sending a SWAT team (or heavily armed police or military personal in non US contexts) to a person's address. Swating is a form of online harassment as the home or office addresses of individuals are acquired either through publicly available databases or hacks||Swating is a form of attack that attempts to psychologically harass politically-active women as well as put them under physical risk. Heavily armed security personnel show up to the home or work addresses of politically-active women, which is highly dangerous not only for women but for their families and communities.|
|Trolling||The act of posting obscene or inflammatory comments to destabilise debate or attack a person or community||Several women who participated in our research expressed that their social media accounts and hashtags associated with their campaigns were trolled by mobs or bots in order to distract from key messages associated with a particular debate and to destabilise their campaigns and human rights advocacy.|
1 The academic institutions and civil society organisations mentioned in this overview include, but are not limited to, the Harvard Berkman Klein Center, Toronto University Citizen Lab, Association for Progressive Communications, Amnesty International, Women Action and the Media, Pew Research Center, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Bytes for All, the Take Back the Tech Campaign. Other reviewed literature includes, but is not limited to, New Book by Tania G. Levey; Sexual Harassment Online: Shaming and Silencing Women in the Digital Age (2018); Hate Crimes in Cyberspace by Danielle Citron; Viral Hate: Containing Its Spread on the Internet by Abraham H. Foxman and Christopher Wolf; The Internet of Garbage by Sarah Jeong; CyberSexism: Gender and Power on the Internet by Laurie Penny. Please refer to upcoming footnotes for specific references
2 The following resources were reviewed to assemble definitions pertaining to online harassment: a)Perspectives on Harmful Speech Online, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society Research Publication b) Citron, D. K., 2014, Hate Crimes in Cyberspace. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. c) Jane, E. A., 2017, Misogyny Online: A Short (and Brutish) History. London: Sage Publications Inc. d) Jeong, S., 2015) The Internet Of Garbage. New York City: Forbes Media. e) Lenhart, A. Ybarra, M. Zickuhr, K. Price-Feeney, M. ,2017, Online Harassment, Digital Abuse, and Cyberstalking in America. f) Data & Society g) Online Harassment in the Global South h) Women Action and the Media Twitter Report, 2015 i) An extensive review of resources by the Association for Progressive Communication and Take Back the Tech Campaign j) International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights