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To eradicate misogyny, we must address online gender-based violence

Canadian PoliticsFeminismHuman Rights

Women’s March in Berlin, March 8, 2020. Photo by Raquel García/Unsplash.

After her husband broke her rib, Ruby went to an emergency room and then directly to a shelter. The next morning, her husband was knocking on the shelter’s door, demanding that she come out. He had located her using the Find My Phone app.

Jade shared an intimate photo of herself with a man on a dating site. When she eventually ended the relationship, the man threatened to share the photo on Facebook if she didn’t transfer a large sum of money to him. Jade reported it to the RCMP, but there were no solutions. Fearful of what could happen, Jade packed up and moved away.

After splitting up, Ferial Nijem’s ex-partner used his ‘smart home’ system to make her life “a living nightmare.” The system allows the user to adjust lights, heating, blinds, speakers, and security cameras. Having total control of the system, her ex monitored her with the security surveillance cameras. In the middle of the night, he would blare music on the audio system, flick the lights on and off, and change TV channels. It was “as if the house [was] haunted.”

These horrific accounts are examples of online gender-based violence and tech-facilitated violence—newer phenomena that are rooted in age-old sexism but furthered by sophisticated technology and online fuelled misogyny.

These acts and others like them—from doxxing to deepfakes to real life massacres—are becoming increasingly common as technology embeds deeper into our lives, yet governments and tech companies seem to largely ignore this devastating, sometimes fatal, issue.

As we recommit to addressing violence against women today, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, we must include online gender-based violence in our discussions.

What is online gender-based violence?

Online gender-based violence (OGBV) is online harassment and abuse of women and non-binary people.

In recent decades, as more people have embraced the internet, misogyny has flourished on social media platforms, message boards, and forums. This should come as no surprise: sexism has always permeated society, and it’s only logical it would pervade our new-age public sphere.

OGBV is so prevalent, in fact, that Amnesty International launched an investigation in 2017 called Toxic Twitter. In the poll, 23 percent of women, from eight different countries, said they’d experienced online abuse or harassment. Of those who’d experienced online abuse, 46 percent had sexist comments directed at them, 26 percent had received threats of physical or sexual assault, 16 percent had some personal details posted online, and eight percent had images posted of them without their consent.

OGBV isn’t just about abusive behaviour on social media—it takes many forms, according to Citizen Lab. It ranges from: “cyber stalking, non-consensual sharing or distribution of intimate photos and videos (“revenge porn”), harassment, hacking, denial-of-service attacks, the use of gender-based slurs, the publication of private and identifiable personal information (“doxing”), impersonation, extortion, rape and death threats, electronically enabled trafficking, and sexual exploitation or luring of minors.”

Many are quick to dismiss OGBV as “cyberbullying”—chalking it up to annoyance, not actual abuse. But as Citizen Lab explains, harm resulting from online violence is very real. This can be psychological (reluctance to use social media, fear of expressing opinions, and feelings of anxiety, shame, stress), financial (legal costs, online protection services, missed wages, professional consequences), and even physical (stress-related illness, injury, and physical trauma).

There is “a false dichotomy when it comes to technology facilitated violence against women and ‘regular’ violence against women,” explains Suzie Dunn, an expert in tech-facilitated violence. “Some people try and make it seem like something like a death threat or stalking that occurs online is less serious than the same thing happening in person, but the truth is both should be taken seriously and are often interconnected.”

As Citizen Lab explained, OGBV is about more than abuse on social media platforms. This hate can quickly transform into harm offline. Trying to discern online/offline conduct is often impossible. As written in a submission to the United Nations Rapporteur on Violence against Women, online behaviour can facilitate or exacerbate traditional violence against women, and technology has also allowed for entirely new forms of violence to emerge. This broader phenomenon is known as technology-facilitated violence (TFV).

TFV, like the extreme forms of OGBV when it moves offline, can be horrifying. In a survey conducted by the National Network to End Domestic Violence in the United States, found that 97 percent of domestic violence programs reported that abusers use technology to stalk, harass, and control victims. In the United Kingdom, research on domestic online abuse by Women’s Aid found that 85 percent of respondents said the abuse they received online from a partner or ex-partner was part of a pattern of abuse they also experienced offline.

Perhaps most devastating are the fatal consequences of extreme misogyny bred in online chatrooms and forums.

According to a 2017 study by Amnesty International, nearly a quarter of women from eight different countries said they’d experienced online abuse or harassment. Photo from Shutterstock.

The ‘manosphere’ is killing women

In 2018, a young man named Alek Minassian killed 10 people and injured 16 others by driving a van across Yonge Street—one of the busiest streets in Toronto. He committed one of Canada’s largest mass murders, he explained on Facebook, as a pledge of allegiance to the “Incel Rebellion.” 

It wasn’t the first time an incel (short for involuntary celibate) had gone on a killing spree.

In 2014, a self-identified incel named Elliot Rodger killed six people and wounded fourteen others in California. He justified his actions in a lengthy manifesto widely shared online as retaliation against women for refusing to have sex with him, which he believed he was owed.

Incels are men who congregate in online forums like Reddit, 4chan and 8chan, to blame women for their sexless lives. As Zack Beauchamp writes, incels contend women are cruel, shallow people who are only attracted to hyper-muscular men, and that this is the sociopolitical reason for their sexual failures. They proclaim this is a “profound injustice” against men like themselves, who suffer a tragic genetic disadvantage. Within the larger online community of incels, a radical fringe believes that violence against women is an appropriate response, and an “Incel Rebellion” will eventually bring them justice.

While there are at least 60,000 people active on public incel online forums, incels are but one part of the larger ‘manosphere:’ a loose group of websites united by their belief in various male-dominant ideologies. The manosphere includes men’s rights activists, PUA’s (pick up artists), and more. “You’d be shocked at the amount of violence, raping, killing and attacking of women they advocate,” says Heidi Beirich, the director of the Intelligence Project at Southern Poverty Law Center.

New form, same deep-seated misogyny

But while the online organizing of hate is novel, misogyny running through the veins of society is not. Incels are a new iteration and a dark reflection of deep-seated and corrosive views about women.

“We need to address the root problems of why incels feel entitled to sexual access to women and why they think vengeful violence against women in general is a legitimate response to their frustrations,” says Dunn. “So much of this is rooted in cultures of toxic masculinity, to combat incels we need to combat the sexist norms that legitimize these values.”

In Canada, criminologist Barbara Perry has identified 120 instances of extreme violence by right-wing groups, including incels, in the past 30 years. This is compared to only seven incidents from Islamist-inspired extremists. Canadian authorities often dismiss these incidents as ‘lone wolf’ attacks, but experts have been sounding the alarm bells on growing internet subcultures that promote extreme violence. Simply put, the threat posed by these groups is not being taken seriously enough. 

How do we address online gender-based violence?

Asking a survivor to press delete, log off, or simply avoid the internet, is not the answer. Technology is so deeply engrained in our lives it’s nearly impossible to live without it. More importantly, it isn’t the responsibility of women to change their actions. Just as women shouldn’t ‘stop walking home alone’ or ‘not dress a certain way’ to avoid sexual assault, women should not have to censor or remove themselves from digital public forums. Rather, it’s abusers who must change their behaviour.

To date, the Canadian government has not done enough to protect people from OGBV.

In 2017, Canada introduced Bill C-13, which introduced provisions on non-consensual distribution of intimate images (“revenge porn”), which filled a significant gap in our criminal law. But advocacy groups raised concerns about the “chilling effects” of creeping internet surveillance and its impacts on self-censorship. The current Departmental Plan released by Women and Gender Equality Canada, a federal department, does not mention OGBV or TFV once.

The Canadian government needs to meaningfully address the cyberviolence that women in this country endure every day.

Dunn says that governments should “fund violence against women [VAW] organizations who are working on the front line to provide them with the resources and training they need to support victims of TFV.” She also suggests that governments fund or develop bodies to directly address TFV. “This should include research and education campaigns to change the culture around TFV, as well as front-line organizations that directly support women who have been targeted in a timely manner.”

The information and communication technology (ICT) sector also needs to do its part and implement strong policies to meaningfully address OGBV. As it stands, tech companies are extremely reactionary. Websites like Reddit and 4Chan employ a whack-a-mole strategy with online abusers. This isn’t an effective strategy and leaves women in harm’s way.

ICT firms need explicit policies banning hate speech. They need to introduce more effective reporting and blocking policies, that are enforced quickly and efficiently to enable the immediate removal of online posts or suspension of those posting them. These policies must be easy to find and navigate, use accessible language, and outline clear consequences for violators. There are too many instances of users reporting abuse and social media platforms allowing perpetrators to carry on their merry way.

The COVID-19 pandemic is only exacerbating OGBV—women around the world are enduring more intimate partner violence, technology is being exploited for domestic violence, and women are battling against more severe and increased abuse online.

Canada needs a plan. If we are serious about eliminating violence against women, we need to include conversations about online gender-based violence and tech-facilitated violence. We need to listen to survivors of abuse. We need to implement actual policies. And those policies need to have teeth.

Paula Ethans is a writer, poet, organizer, and human rights lawyer from Winnipeg. You can follow her on Twitter @PaulaEthans.

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