Online violence against women – a weapon used to silence and degrade

The digital space has become an essential medium for activists and individuals to reach global audiences with messages on human rights, gender justice, and other critical social issues through social media platforms like Facebook.  While online activism for gender justice is growing, violence against women on these online spaces is also on the rise. This issue of online violence as part of the larger backlash against women’s rights is the focus of a new pilot research project by BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) in collaboration with the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) under the Countering Backlash programme. Through the research we explore the online hate and threats of violence towards advocates for gender justice, and women in general, causing them to lose confidence, courage, and interest to speak out or advocate. 

Following the Facebook pages of vocal women 

For the research we chose to track the Facebook pages of three female media personnel based in Bangladesh who are vocal about women’s rights and gender justice issues. This included a social media influencer, a journalist, and a veteran actress who is also a development practitioner.  It also included examining two events that flared up on social media and created mass debate on women’s agency and women’s rights in the context of Bangladesh during May – September 2021 and one anti-feminist Facebook group. The study looked at the interaction of the three media personnel in Facebook in depth and found that women’s choice of clothing, personal life choices, including relationship and marriage, LGBTQI issues, and contents on violence against women including rape, sexual harassment, and domestic violence were the most contested issues – resulting in the most online harassment and violence against the voice that raised them. 

Types of backlash  

Looking at the types of backlash, we found a few common types across issues and persons that occur repeatedly. The first and the most common form of backlash, regardless of the content they post, was name-calling and labelling of women, mostly as ‘prostitute’, targeting their personal life choices (such as clothing, marital/relationship partners, etc). Then came sexually explicit hate comments that are often directed to specific body parts of women, such as breasts and vaginas. In extreme cases, these led to rapethreats and publishing sexually fabricated photographs to create a meme or post in the comment section to vilify these women.  

Another major form of backlash was religious and moral policing. With this form, backlash actors bring in religion to point fingers and criticise female public figures for their clothing preferences, lifestyles, personal choices, and opinions. For instance, the social media influencer would oftentimes be blamed for coming in front of the camera and speaking in public without covering up. Many of these hate comments would also state how wrong she is to try to make a mark in the entertainment industry by showcasing a ‘western lifestyle’ without respecting her cultural roots.  

A major form of backlash is delegitimising posts advocating for women’s rights. This comes with “male validation”, where male backlash actors are often seen defining what “ideal feminism/women’s rights/motherhood, etc.” is and deciding who is “credible” enough to be speaking on these matters. When the female public figures in our research posted contents on issues such as early childhood development, sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence, mental health, consent in a sexual relationship, marital rape, single parenthood, and such issues for public awareness, backlash actors would attack them by drawing on their personal life and suggest that they are not the “ideal” person to talk about such issues. When a series of delegitimising comments like this are posted and multiple fellow backlash actors ‘like’ them, the key messages originally posted by women eventually lose their relevance and seriousness.  

Backlash actors also mocked and trivialised with ‘haha’ reactions on Facebook to devalue the underlying messages directed towards understanding women’s struggles better and fighting misogynistic discourses and actions in patriarchy. Even when someone took legal action against the cyber-harassment it was not taken seriously and rather delegitimised with a comment stating that it was waste of time. 

Who are the perpetrators?  

But who are these backlash actors? We tried to find if those posting the online abuse are an organised group or if they share any common identity. Our research looked at Bangladeshi and Bangla speaking people, living both inside and outside of Bangladesh and found that the backlash is coming from the broad public, and thus it is hard to pinpoint any specific organised groups.  

Many of the perpetrators hide behind fake accounts on Facebook to maintain anonymity. For the locked accounts, the gender and other background information could not be determined. The accessible accounts showed that most of the commenters are men and boys, aged between their early twenties to late forties. However, women too are actors and accomplices of backlash. There is a trend of openly posting and commenting based on religion-based critiques and moralising, both by women and men. We found that fake accounts are primarily used to post sexually explicit comments and rape threats. 

Tactics to counter the backlash  

We also found that the female personalities are using tactics to counter the backlash. The most common one is filtering and restricting the comments on their Facebook pages, especially when posting about more sensitive subjects – such as LGBTQI rights. Sometimes they appoint moderators for their social media handles who remove offensive hate comments. An interesting tactic we observed was using dark humour and sarcasm to highlight the contested issue. It can be assumed that making serious issues sound “lighter” results in less severe backlash. Other tactics include calling out to the hate commenters through a short video, replying with wits while showing the screenshot of the hate comment, talking about the abuse and harassment on media outlets and radio, and taking legal actions. 

Online and offline harms 

Although online violence most often does not lead to physical harm offline, the online violence is far more widespread and intense. On one hand it subtly (or not so subtly) aims to send women back to their “acceptable” roles – how society expects women should behave and thus sanctioning discrimination, stigmatisation and violence against women. On the other hand, protesting women’s rights online is easier than protesting or preventing women from enjoying their rights on the streets. The scope of anonymity and lack of legal consequences give the perpetrators the opportunity of committing the violence with impunity, making it a lethal weapon for silencing women’s voices. 

This emerging form of online backlash on social media is not only closing the digital space for women but also shrinking the civic space for promoting gender justice. We need to acknowledge the severity of this violence and its impact on the lives women and girls. It is high time to understand and address the depth of this issue in today’s digital world and take a comprehensive approach to prevent and mitigate online risks, and promote a safe online space for everyone. 

This blog is also posted on the Institute of Development Studies’ website.

Living in a digital society – but at what cost?

The digital revolution and access to online spaces has transformed the ways we communicate, work, and organise. It has also become critical to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – not least SDG target 5b to ‘Enhance the use of enabling technology to promote the empowerment of women’.

This digital transformation has been accelerated over the past two years by the Covid-19 pandemic, with the European Commission going so far as to note the pandemic’s potential ‘positive’ impact in “increasing further the number of internet users and their interactions online“.  Yet research carried out by the IDS Digital and Technology Cluster since the start of the pandemic compellingly illustrates the costs of inclusion in digital societies to individuals, democratic institutions, and the economies of lower income countries.

In their work with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, Kevin Hernandez and Tony Roberts also outlined the challenges of governance in a world where a significant percentage of the world’s social, economic and political life now takes place on digital platforms. Platforms that are owned by private monopolies whose algorithms are optimised for private profit, cannot be held accountable, or democratically governed to service development or human rights goals.

Imbalance of power in digital trade provisions

Research by Karishma Banga has highlighted the digital trade provisions in trade agreements, showing how African countries are entering continental negotiations at a severe disadvantage. This is unsurprising given that the revenue of the big five firms (Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook) reached $7.5 trillion in 2020, which was three times the nominal gross domestic product (GDP) of all African nations combined. She argues that we need to understand the embedded power structures in digital development – which are vividly illustrated by the involvement of global technology companies such as Google in lobbying in Kenyan trade agreements.

Digital-only access to work and social assistance

In our research carried out for the ESRC-funded Digital Futures at Work Research Centre Kevin Hernandez and I have been looking at how decisions made by powerful digital actors shape experiences for different users based on their levels of digital access. As access to job seeking and welfare during the pandemic moved online, we sought to understand the impact on people with limited digital access and skills. As a welfare advisor in the UK put it “At the very basic level you need some kind of Internet access these days to administer a benefit [Welfare] claim… It’s become as vital as water and electricity.”  Yet we found that already marginalised individuals were especially vulnerable to being further excluded by services that were only available digitally during the pandemic.

This move to online only service provision is also the case in the humanitarian context. Our recent working paper for the BASIC project shows that there are also significant risks involved when people have to provide personal information for digital databases to humanitarian agencies in order to access social assistance. Amid increasing pressures to digitise the whole value chain of humanitarian cash assistance, our research highlights a raft of key issues requiring further scrutiny, from the purported ‘value for money’ to the technical effectiveness of biometric ID systems. Issues that have become even more urgent by the recent revelations of a cyber-attack on the International Committee of the Red Cross resulting in the leak of personal data of more than half a million people registered on their international family tracing service.

Online backlash against women

Mobile phones and internet technologies are being used positively by women and marginalised groups to access information, organise on online spaces to demand their rights, and to influence policy and political change. However, the same online technologies are also used to disrupt civil society, spread disinformation, target online hate speech and to silence dissent. In our work with the Countering Backlash programme we are collaborating with partner organisations to research the online backlash against women’s rights, which threatens not only women’s rights to be seen and heard online, but our economic right to access platforms which are essentially now our workplaces; vital for commerce, professional engagement, job seeking, and distribution of our creative outputs.

Online civic space and surveillance

Finally, people’s ability to act using digital tools or online digital spaces in ways that allow people to exercise, expand, and defend their rights and freedoms has been growing in political importance over the past decade. However, this digital citizenship is threatened by digital authoritarianism, as explored by Tony Roberts in his case study with Tanja Bosch for the OECD’s recent Development Cooperation Report.

The work of the African Digital Rights Network shows how digital authoritarianism in the forms of digital surveillance, online disinformation, and internet shutdown by states and corporations  – violate human rights, close civic space, and reduce the space for digital citizenship. Their research across ten African countries identified 115 “digital closings” of civic space including mandatory mobile SIM card registration and social media taxes, and only 65 positive examples of “digital openings”, including social media activism and innovations to provide transparency and track corruption. Their work on Surveillance Law in Africa showed that governments are carrying out illegal digital surveillance of their citizens, highlighting the need for strong civil society, independent media and independent courts to challenge government actions.

This snapshot of research from the IDS Digital and Technology Cluster and our partners demonstrates the importance of contributing to understandings of power asymmetries and exclusions in all aspects of our digital lives; from political mobilisation, to e-commerce negotiations and access to welfare payments. This knowledge will be critical for policymakers and practitioners within development seeking to further social, environmental and gender justice in today’s digital world.

With thanks to Jasmin Morris for her contributions to this opinion article.