Our own experience of online abuse on the course of the project
The Univers’ELLES project tends to speak to all women no matter their nationality, social status, sexual orientation or their religion. But to speak to all women, this project needed to collect stories of women from all walks of life. This necessity has put a lot of stress on the team to find women of all background in each and every country they have been to. In some country, the task was easier than in others but we also had to use all the resource we could find to connect with potential women who’d be willing to share a part of them, to share their story so they can inspire others to fight for women’s rights and show that this issue is a global one.
The internet was a great help in the search for contacts. In a click, it helped us connect with dozens of women who were willing to raise their voice. Yet, sometimes it also came with a less enthusiastic reaction which led to backlashing situation.
One of our most soring souvenir happened in Thailand on one of the most known and used Facebook page that counts thousands of followers: locals and immigrants/expatriates living and working in Thailand. In order to connect with Thai women and women’s groups, the team of the Univers’ELLES project posted a message on this Facebook page explaining briefly what the project was about and what we were looking for. The answers came in quickly, but they were anything but helpful or polite. Most of the heinous comments came from western males, daring to say what Thai women need or don’t need or have a say about their condition. The comments reached a point of vulgarity and verbal abuse within minutes, forcing us to eventually back off, erase the post and “unlike” the Facebook page. To be fair, some males tried to take our defense but it looked more like patronization and mansplaining rather than real support. Some even took it personally and tried to track down our personal accounts on social media to later on use our pictures or username to make a very detailed and false analysis of our personality in a coarse, rude, sexist, misogynic and belittling way.
Thankfully, women came in number to fight back and respond to those cowards’ online trolls. Many sent our team private messages to encourage us to continue our project. They recognized the benefits in the fact that Thai women could be given the chance to speak for themselves regarding their condition in their society. Others shared with us their own personal experience of online harassment and confided in us that this Facebook page had been frequently criticized for allowing verbal violence, especially against women.
This experience didn’t slow us down at all but only gave us another reason to keep running this project. It gave us another source of motivation: flood the internet with the voice of strong, empowered and inspiring women. The road is still long but each step counts.
Internet: a double edge sword tool for women
We live in the heyday of technology. The easy access to information has tremendously contributed to bringing populations of people together and helped take social movement onto a global scale more easily. Internet is with no doubt a new source of power that can either tip the balance in the right direction or in the wrong direction. If the internet can be a terrific tool of expression and collective mobilization, it can also be a space of great violence, especially towards women.
Social media platforms for instance have the remarkable power to help give a voice to the voiceless. Those platforms can help to connect, create a debate, learn and share. In the interviews we have conducted in several countries, when we asked women what in their opinion had triggered women to stand up and fight for their rights, many replied that it was the access and use of social media and the internet. With only a few clicks, women can easily become aware of what is happening on the other side of the world, women from all around the world can share ideas, discuss and try to find solutions together to tackle gender issues, and this, no matter the different shackles that they may face. They united and they become aware and therefore have a common voice.
Whether the internet is a source of motivation for some or a crucial tool for others to implement their actions, it is undoubtedly a tool that has helped women from all walks of life and different countries to come together to speak with one united voice. The examples are numerous, but the most recent and the one who has received the biggest media coverage is still the #metoo campaign who has freed women’s voices regarding sexual harassment.
While the internet is a critical space for marginalized populations to make their voices heard, it often comes with a price.
Online violence: An overt expression of gender discrimination and inequality that exists offline
The issue of online violence, despite the fact that it is now well known, is still rarely addressed properly. The issue of online violence is especially prevalent with those who identify as female. In a research they have conducted, they found out that women were more often than men victims of abuse. In conclusion, victims of online abuse are very often targeted solely for their gender or if they publish content about gender issues.
The problem with this type of violence is multiple. First of all, due to the very nature of the internet, an online abuse can become out of control in a matter of minutes. Violence against women that are perpetuated online can quickly take the form of rape threats, threats of violence, privacy violations, online harassment, cyberstalking, insult, sexist and misogynic comments and more. Second, these types of violence are not insignificant or harmless, the person behind the aggression aims at causing the victim pain, shame, and fear. It is proven that online gender based violence can have a psychological impact and cause stress, anxiety and lower self-esteem. Third, and not the least, online gender based violence has a silencing and censoring effect on women.
As Amnesty International pointed out, this type of violence creates a hostile environment with the aim of shaming, intimidating or degrading women. But the problem here is that online violence and abuse are a direct threat to women’s freedom of expression. Because in most cases, when women face obnoxious abuse online, even in some cases death threat, they will have the immediate reaction to get off the internet in order to protect themselves. Online abuse and violence should not be taken lightly. Reports of women who have been stalked down by maniacs or threatened with death or rape are no longer isolated cases. It exists and it is important to address the problem as seriously as offline violence.
To prepare this article we have asked women from different countries if they have ever experienced online gender based violence and how they dealt with it. Many of the stories that have been reported to us are men stalking them on their social media accounts and sending them pictures of their genitals. Most of the women we interviewed for this paper told us that when they tried to talk about it to someone they were laughed upon or their abuse case were not taken seriously as people only told them that if they didn’t want to received such threats, they should just delete their accounts, tighten their security settings or just not use a female username or speak about gender issues. In conclusion, the advice they were given was to go off the grid, silence their voices, disappear from the internet and give up on their right to freedom of expression and access to technology if they wished to remain safe.
This reaction to a woman facing online threats is a classic victim blaming reaction that women face way too often offline and now online. The problem should not be on the victims under any circumstances. Two of the women we contacted for this article are often the target of online abuse and violence as they run a feminist and sex educational Vlog in Cambodia. Catherine Harry and Nhek Reingsey have reported to us that on a weekly basis they receive countless sexists and misogynic comments on the video they post and receive additionally numerous private messages with insulting and even sometimes pornographic contents. They have told us that they have indeed felt uncomfortable and sometimes unsafe online but will not give up on providing educational videos to tackle gender issues in Cambodia.
An overlooked problem that requires immediate action
Women are undeniably the larger and most vulnerable group on earth, yet in this decade we are witnessing the rise of women. They’ve taken their stand and raising their voices to be heard, and this is done globally. Thanks to the internet, women rights have become a global fight, and a global cause. If in one hand we have women and men fighting for equal society but, the other hand we have a certain number of men and women who still want to keep women under the complete control and servitude of men. Just as much as women’s rights defenders use the internet and social media platforms for their cause, we will always have to face those in disfavor of gender equality. Our freedom of expression allows us to discuss, debate, to agree or disagree and even if it is with great displeasure we always have to respect the right of expression to those who are against gender equality.
However, when it comes to abuse, violence, and discrimination, whether it is online or offline, it must be stopped and the perpetrator must face an adequate and appropriate punishment.
Online violence is still too often overlooked in discussion of violence against women. As Amnesty International said, the response of social media companies to gender based violence is not proportional and too often not taken seriously. Heinous comments and threats online are hardly ever removed from the social media platform and the author of the abusive comments is rarely prosecuted. Social media companies have to stop addressing online abuse with inadequate responses and start ensuring that women using their platforms are able to do so without fearing reprisal.
In 2016, top tech companies such as Facebook, Google, Twitter and Instagram have engaged with women’s groups, NGOs, prosecutors and police in different region of the world to research into how hate, harassment and intimidation are used online and how they can better tackle online abuse. They have taken into account the great dissatisfaction of thousands of users who called them for immediate action to ensure their safety online. The process is still ongoing and whereas they are already many ways to protect oneself on the internet and social media platforms, it is crucial that those tech companies deploy more means to address a problem that has reached an unprecedented scale.
However, even if the internet and social media platform must become more women friendly and ensure that women can stay safe, it shall not give prerogatives to government to limit or reduce the right to freedom of expression in order to tackle online violence and abuse.
Whereas it is the own sovereignty of each country to deal with online abuse the way they see fit, it is crucial that this issue is recognized globally it as a legitimate and harmful manifestation of gender based violence. And it is required that social media companies and government come together with concrete initiatives to prevent online gender based violence with appropriate prosecution and punishment of the perpetrators.
In France, for instance, victims of online violence have different remedies for the situation. First of all, they have the possibility to get support and advice from a hotline (3919). Then they are encouraged to file a complaint at the nearest police station and form a lawsuit against the perpetrator of the violence before the CNIL (Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés). The perpetrator faces between 12,000 to 15,000 euros of fines depending on the offense and may also be sentenced to prison. Simultaneously, victims can request the suppression of the information that forms an abuse or violence to each site or social network of origin, by asserting their right of opposition, for legitimate motives, on the basis of the article 38 of the modified law of January 6th, 1978 “IT and Freedom “. In addition, if this information appears in the search results when entering the victim’s first and last name, the victim has the option to make a dereferencing request to Google by filling out the form. (All information can be found here).
Laws exist to protect users from online violence, yet users are rarely aware of the legal armada available to protect them from the dangers of internal. Moreover, the legal system in place are not yet strong enough and elaborate enough to control the disproportionate issue of online violence. In February 2018, the French High Council for Equality denounced the extent of gender-based violence on social media platforms and called for a revision of the law to provide an appropriate solution to this endemic problem.
Online gender based violence is just as much of a problem as offline gender based violence, with the difference that it gets amplified very quickly and can destroy a person’s life. Women are especially targeted and are being pushed off the internet.
Our advice for you: do not let them take you away from internet and social media. Report the abuse to your local authorities and simultaneously report it to the platform onto which they occurred (have a look at your national policy regarding online violence) to get support.
Stay safe online and offline.
Commission Nationale de l’Information et des Libertés (CNIL) – https://www.cnil.fr/fr/reagir-en-cas-de-harcelement-en-ligne
Digital @ DAI – Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls Exacerbates Digital Exclusion – https://dai-global-digital.com/cyber-vawg-what-are-the-implications-for-digital-inclusion.html – 2017
The Guardian – Twitter announces new measures to tackle abuse and harassment – https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/feb/07/twitter-abuse-harassment-crackdown – 2017
Global Fund for Women – Online violence: Just because it’s virtual doesn’t make it any less real – https://www.globalfundforwomen.org/online-violence-just-because-its-virtual-doesnt-make-it-any-less-real/ – 2018
Amnesty International -What is online violence and abuse against women? – https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2017/11/what-is-online-violence-and-abuse-against-women/ – 2017
Amnesty International – Amnesty reveals alarming impact of online abuse against women – https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2017/11/amnesty-reveals-alarming-impact-of-online-abuse-against-women/ – 2017
Stop Violence Against Women – Online violence against women has become an endemic – http://stoponlinevaw.com/
Le Parisien – Violences en ligne faites aux femmes : « ce ne sont pas des violences virtuelles » – http://www.leparisien.fr/faits-divers/violences-en-ligne-faites-aux-femmes-ce-ne-sont-pas-des-violences-virtuelles-07-02-2018-7545603.php – 2018
LCI – Insultée et harcelée, Caroline de Haas quitte les réseaux sociaux « pour un temps indéterminé » – https://www.lci.fr/societe/insultee-et-harcelee-caroline-de-haas-quitte-les-reseaux-sociaux-pour-un-temps-indetermine-twitter-facebook-cyber-harcelement-2079882.html – 2018
A Dose of Cath – http://adoseofcath.blogspot.fr/