Author: Lauren Salim
March 6, 2023
Later this month, the sixty-seventh session of the Commission on the Status of Women will take place in New York. The theme of this year’s commission is “Innovation and technological change, and education in the digital age for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls”.
A major barrier to achieving this goal is the prevalence of online harms against women, which has only increased in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Online harms encompass a broad spectrum of actions including cyber stalking, cyber bullying, the sharing of intimate images, deep fake porn, harassment and threats of violence. Each of these have very serious consequences on the ability of women to feel safe online, to feel confident expressing their opinions and participating in civic spaces.
There are several key challenges to addressing online hate speech, harassment and threats of violence. The first is the definitional challenge of outlining what hate speech is, and what it isn’t, in a way that allows us to pursue traditional forms of justice. The second is the jurisdictional challenge of determining whose laws apply to the internet and where the boundaries are.
The impacts of hateful speech, harassment and threats of violence are amplified due to the access people have to connect with one another online, the guise of anonymity that can make saying harmful things a low stakes activity for perpetrators, and the fact that extreme content gets more interactions than other content. As it relates to women leaders, the impacts can have a silencing effect that discourages their participation in online public places.
Women in the spotlight are frequently the targets of vicious online attacks and gendered disinformation campaigns. These attacks often frame women as inherently untrustworthy, unintelligent, too emotional, or sexualized. Most disturbing is that often these attacks are carried out with malign intent and coordination among the perpetrators.
In Canada, online abuse against women has become so prevalent and toxic that it’s driving some women out of their political careers or public-facing roles. More broadly, these attacks threaten civic discourse and sew deeper divisions and may even jeopardize gender equality and representation within democratic institutions.
This effect is particularly noticeable with respect to minority women.
Social media, in a very real sense, is the new public square. It is a tragedy that, in Canada, some women leaders have been forced to disengage from this forum entirely as a result of the harassment and violent threats that have been allowed to surface online.
However, some women simply cannot afford to disengage. For them communicating online is part of their job, in which they are routinely forced to confront persistent harassment and threats. The psychological toll on them and their families as a result of this is significant.
There’s a quote from Safiya Noble, co-founder and Faculty Director of the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, that sums up the problem nicely, “if you can destroy people who are symbols of social justice, then you can scare people to not want to be public”.
Wednesday, March 8th is International Women’s Day 2023. This year we must commit to doing more to counter the harms women face online.
Globally, legislators need to demand greater transparency, accountability and better risk assessments from social media platforms with respect to their business model, and the devastating harms caused by the content that is published on their platforms.
There’s a lot of work that needs to be done offline to address the drivers of misogyny, polarization, and hate against women, particularly women in power. The online environment often amplifies these issues, providing an anonymous space for people to share their more extreme views and find like-minded people to radicalize with. There’s no technical solution that comes to mind that will eradicate hate from social media platforms, but transparency into business models and algorithms and better accountability measures can help mitigate the harm and virality of some of these posts.
Additionally, governments need to ensure practical and accessible avenues for those targeted by gender-based violence to ensure they get the support they need and to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions. And front-line anti-violence organizations require increased resources and support to provide intervention strategies.