To develop comprehensive, holistic, survivor-centric responses to gendered online harassment that targets politically-active women, three principles are key:
1. Accountability: While tech companies do publish annual transparency reports, the published information is not sufficient to hold tech companies accountable for gendered online harassment. For one, the opaque nature of the internal criteria used to regulate content hinders efforts to hold tech companies accountable.
Social media platforms often treat their responses to online harassment as short-term solutions in response to PR crises. Twitter publicly acknowledged the need to provide a more concerted effort and attention to online harassment following the Gamer Gate Controversy and the suspension of Rose McGowen’s account during the Weinstein scandal. Similarly, Facebook has acknowledged that it needs to do more to tackle online harassment following the US Marines scandal.
Until leaked internal documents were analysed and investigated by The Guardian, the world knew very little about the internal criteria and processes which regulate free speech, with regard to abusive content on Facebook. A recurring trend across US-based social media platforms is that the available public knowledge on internal content moderation is only made available through the work of whistle-blowers, rather than as a result of transparent processes and documents released by companies themselves. 20 With the exception of Women Action Media’s collaboration with Twitter, there is little data provided by the platforms to enable any in-depth research on the topic. Accessing such data would immensely help to document the various forms of online harassment that occur, including their frequency and, crucially, the impact of this harassment on women.
2. Context-specific discussion: In-depth interviews with 25 politically-active women indicate that online harassment is highly contextual. 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, thereby rendering invisible the realities of women who are adversely and disproportionately affected by online harassment. There needs to be more research and policy discussion around these experiences to enable those directly impacted to inform and create globally-appealing and applicable remedies.
No user should be without options in navigating their digital and physical safety or their psychological wellbeing. It is the responsibility of tech companies to develop context-specific remedies in partnership with public institutions and civil society, in order to contribute to creating a safe and enabling platform for politically-active women to mobilise support, create calls for action and increase their visibility.
3. Collaboration: Tech companies have over the years collaborated with women and digital rights organisations. These collaborations have shown some success in pushing companies to respond to online violence. That collaboration can be strengthened by including further initiatives and allies across geographies and identities to find a common language around which to frame the discourse on harassment, ensuring that it focuses on harm reduction, consent and local contexts.
Collaboration is especially key in all policies that regulate freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is a pillar of the universal human rights framework. Currently large tech companies have a greater say in regulating content on their platforms than governments do. Leaving freedom of expression to the hands of private enterprises without adequate judicial oversight is a very dangerous phenomenon. Social media companies should collaborate with public institutions as well as civil society to construct solutions to address online harassment, in a way that combines technological remedies, legal and policy solutions and induces cultural change.
20 Marwick, A. Miller, R. (2014). Online Harassment, Defamation, and Hateful Speech: A Primer of the Legal Landscape Penny, Laurie. (2013). Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on the Internet. London: Bloomsbury. Perspectives on Harmful Speech Online. (2017). Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society Research Publication Phillips, W. (2015). This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture. Cambridge: The MIT Press. Zandt, D. Don't Read The Comments, Don't Feed The Trolls, Get A Thicker Skin, And Other Ways To Destroy Your Internet Sanity. Address presented at HOLLA::Revolution 2015
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