With a lack of effective laws and only loose guidelines of social media platforms to address online violence, women activists and human rights defenders are supporting each other. Semanur Karaman introduces forthcoming research by Tactical Technology Collective, highlighting the need for a holistic approach to tackling online gender-based violence.

A few years ago I met my friend, a feminist activist based in Istanbul, at a crowded bus stop in Eminonu. She looked flustered and distressed. A city of almost 20 million people, Istanbul can indeed have that effect. However, something seemed unusually off. She told me: ‘I spent the ferry ride to Eminonu blocking Twitter accounts that sent me rape threats. These cowards should have the courage to say those things in a space where they can’t hide their misogynistic violence behind a Twitter handle.’

My friend, with over a couple of thousand followers on Twitter, is one of the many politically active women who are targeted with online violence on an ongoing basis. Throughout 2017, Tactical Technology Collective conducted research on online harassment targeting women human rights defenders (WHRDs) and journalists. At Tactical Tech we decided to prioritise this issue due to the absence of a global legal definition or policy framework, and lack of political and ethical willingness to address the issue on the part of social media platforms. Although the research will be published in early 2018, this post will share preliminary findings.

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In absence of concerted national or inter-governmental (i.e UN, EU) level response, United States-based technology companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google create their own guidelines and policies. A recent Guardian investigation on Facebook Community Guidelines, and the Women Action Media (WAM!) research on online harassment on Twitter, reveal that social media platforms are far from addressing online harassment that specifically targets women, and are far from adopting an ideal holistic perspective—one that takes into account both digital and physical security needs, psycho-social wellbeing, and the user’s right to exercise freedom of speech. Social media platforms still largely rely on loose guidelines, and underpaid and overworked content moderators to target online harassment instead of developing comprehensive criteria that addresses the issue holistically.

Free speech activists have long battled efforts to set rigid criteria to regulate content on social media. However placing free speech in a vacuum instead of analysing it within a social-political context of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and economic disparity prevents us from accurately analysing who has access to this fundamental right, online and off. The forthcoming Tactical Tech research demonstrates that online harassment has prompted WHRDs and journalists to leave social media platforms either temporarily or permanently, and significantly reduced the scope of their political activism; eventually preventing them from having access to the right to free speech.

Placing free speech in a vacuum has dangerous connotations. Recently social media platforms allowed content by a US Senator that calls for the slaughter of Muslims following a terrorist attack while at the same time taking down content by Black Lives Matter activists calling out systemic racism and white privilege. Similarly on Facebook, content which places women, trans* and gender non-conforming individuals at the receiving end of violence are often marked as humorous or disagreeable by content moderators, and accordingly not prohibited.

The upcoming research by Tactical Tech demonstrates social media platforms started paying increased attention to a rise in calls for action to online harassment in 2014. Arzu Geybullaveya, an Azerbaijani journalist who took part in the research says  ‘If I compare 2014 to 2017, I think there has been a lot of progress in terms of talking about online harassment—any kind of online harassment—against women activists/ journalists.’ This was also the year of Gamer Gate, the targeted harassment campaign against women in the gaming industry which made international headline news calling for collective action. The same year, Twitter was scrutinised for its failure in dealing with harassment, which led the company to suspend user accounts and to establish a partnership with WAM!

The Tactical Tech research analyses in-depth the wellness aspects of online harassment. The research findings clearly demonstrate women who use social media platforms for political advocacy resort to self-censorship as a self-defense mechanism in combating online harassment or to prevent abusers from complementing online violence with physical attacks. Some interviewees have expressed that the demoralising effects of online harassment have induced trauma, prompting them to take a break from their political activities and human rights advocacy. Accordingly, the wellness implications of online harassment prevents women, trans* and gender non-conforming individuals from exercising their right to free speech.

Although politically active women work together to sustain resilience, online and off, through mutual support mechanisms, such efforts alone are not adequate in addressing the problem. The magnitude of wealth generated by Facebook, Twitter and Google comes with political and ethical responsibility. Online harassment should be prioritised by social media platforms themselves either in the form of strategic research and development, developing adequate political and ethical guidelines and training of staff.

Politically active women, to sustain their psycho-social wellbeing as well as physical and digital safety, support one another specifically because social media platforms are not providing adequate remedies and adequate national, inter-governmental level policies and responses are lacking. Some strategies shared by Tactical Tech are as follows:

  • Understanding and navigating the trade-off between privacy and visibility online;
  • Educating one another in encryption, anonymity and digital security tools;
  • Forming support groups to provide psychological support to address trauma and burn out;
  • Providing immediate short term relocation when online harassment includes physical threats;
  • Forming online support groups to prevent trolls from dominating hash tags and reclaiming online spaces from a feminist perspective.

Online violence is real and a growing obstacle for politically active women who want to use technology to further their political cause. In a recent submission to the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Canada-based Citizenlab explained how attempting to draw clear boundary lines between online and offline violence is unhelpful, adding that ‘online behavior may amplify, facilitate, or exacerbate or allow for entirely new forms of violence, abuse, or harassment to take place.’ Coding Rights and Internetlab in their joint submission added ‘one can no longer easily separate the reactions that occur in digital media from those offline: both are a continuum, as are the expressions of violence that occur in these environments’.

Online harassment targeting women who use social media platforms to advance their cause should be prioritised on a policy level where social media platforms are pushed to demonstrate the willingness to address the issue, either through strategic research and development or developing effective policies. At all levels, online harassment should be addressed both as a form of gender-based violence and discrimination, and as a threat to free speech. And, tools and policies should be developed and carried out in consultation with women who are at the receiving end of this violence, tailoring responses to their experiences and needs.

Acknowledgement: The initial phase of the forthcoming research by Tactical Tech on online harassment targeting politically active women is completed by Dalia Othman and Carol Water. Special thanks to Alex Hache and Arikia Millikan for their feedback and edits.

About the author

Semanur Karaman is a feminist activist from Turkey who is currently a part of the Tactical Technology Collective where she works at the intersections of human rights, gender justice and technology. Her most recent publications include Constructing Plural Solidarities for the Sur Journal (author) and Shrinking Spaces: A framing Paper with the Transnational Institute (co-author).