Online harassment infographic. Image: Unesco/Wikimedia. CC SA-4.0.
More activists are moving online to organise. This is especially true for women, given the sexual harassment risks and other constraints they face organising offline. Yet, the online frontier is not safe for them either. UN Women’s research in 2015 found that “73% of women have already been exposed to or have experienced some form of online violence”.
There is no official or public documentation of the scale of this issue for women human rights defenders, but anecdotal evidence suggests that many have faced gendered online harassment – the repeated or sustained use of digital tactics and technologies to harass, intimidate or silence women. Online violence can also precede or enable offline attacks.
One women human rights defender, whose identity cannot be disclosed for security reasons, told me that many activists in the Middle East and North Africa have chosen to maintain very low digital presences amid severe online risks. She said that some of the recently-arrested Saudi women’s rights activists had likely been hacked, as they had worked anonymously.
Despite these challenges, gender justice activists in this region and beyond are fighting back, with numerous groups and individual activists coming up with innovative solutions to risks they face organising online. Though the burden of responding to online violence should not fall on those most deeply affected by it. More must be done to support these women.
“The burden of responding to online violence should not fall on those most deeply affected by it.”
In June, the UN Human Rights Council discussed online violence against women human rights defenders for the first time. While it was encouraging to see this discussion convened, governments and technology companies also bear significant responsibilities in this area – and have stayed largely silent.
The Tactical Technology Collective (Tactical Tech), a Berlin-based non-profit that I have worked with, focuses on social and political implications of digital technologies. It was among the speakers at the UN meeting.
Since 2014, Tactical Tech has engaged specifically with women human rights defenders, organising Gender and Technology Institutes for more than 200 activists in Asia, Africa and Latin America, providing digital security trainings, and supporting the development of a feminist critical discourse on technology.
Gender and Technology Institute Asia participants told me that, given online threats, there is a high degree of self-censorship and isolation. They also described the value of safe, supportive communities to share challenges and solutions to these risks. Offline interactions and networks remain critical, and can enable online solidarity actions when fellow activists are targeted.
“Offline interactions and networks remain critical, and can enable online solidarity actions when fellow activists are targeted.”
Tactical Tech has also created resources including XYZ which share digital security and privacy tools and tactics for women, trans and non-binary individuals. This project aims to be a growing repository of information and resources for those who use digital technologies to advance their activism.
Semanur Karaman, Tactical Tech’s project lead for XYZ, described its goal to become a go-to reference point for women, “demystifying these technologies in a cis-men dominated sector.” She said it will be “a democratic space where women do not only talk about their authentic experiences using these technologies, including opportunities and challenges, but also actively contribute to discussions on alternatives moving forward.”
The XYZ platform. Image: Screenshot, August 2018.
Another resource from Tactical Tech, My Shadow includes training curricula and helps users identify their individual digital footprint and reduce their exposure to threats. Women human rights defenders in the Middle East described these as critical resources, amid very limited access to other digital training and knowledge in their region. They translated some of them into Arabic so that they can be more broadly available to activists in the region.
These resources explain tactics which activists can deploy to protect themselves online, from using secure chat apps such as Signal rather than Facebook Messenger, to ‘self-doxxing’ – researching what is openly available about you online to anticipate what others might maliciously expose.
An activist I interviewed, working across the Middle East and North Africa, told me that in the region, bots are very commonly used to generate hate speech and make sexual violence threats against women human rights defenders. Many of these bots are “propaganda arms of governments,” she said, supporting specific politicians in the Gulf or promoting state ideologies.
To combat this, activists have come up with comprehensive plans combining technical tactics such as identifying bots and sharing their account names, with humour – one activist made memes out of the bots which went viral.
Community support and solidarity, resources and grassroots actions initiated by gender justice activists are responding to online violence. But digital technologies are evolving at such a rapid speed.
We must show solidarity now with these activists, as well as using our resources to support their work directly. This means providing monetary support, as well as showing up physically, joining offline protests. Online violence is real violence, and must be confronted with great urgency.