Discover the impact of online violence and how to stay safe. Learn from researcher Marieliv Flores and explore resources for digital safety. Join Open Heroines for a safer online experience.It is a bright and sunny morning. You are walking in the park, your head up high as the warmth of the sun gently caresses your face. Your beautiful yellow skirt is tenderly swinging in the direction of the slow breeze. “What a fine time to be alive!” You smile to yourself. Then out of nowhere, a banana peel lands on your face and as you try to get rid of it, an apple hits your chest while you trip over a mango peel. And then, a random stranger pours a bucket of water on you. Your skirt is drenched! Your afro has shrunk! You are pulling back tears! The day doesn’t feel bright anymore. Is it really a fine time to be alive? You’re not sure anymore.
This is how some of us feel while walking down the streets of Twitter, and other social media platforms — gaslit, triggered, unsafe, name it. Some have even experienced virtual groping and, in some instances, online threats have translated into physical threats.
Ongoing research shows that the violence that happens offline is often transferred to online spaces. Open Heroine and researcher Marieliv Flores Villalobos opines that social structures such as patriarchy and machismo are replicated and sometimes intensified in the digital spaces.
“Online gender-based violence develops in association with physical, emotional and economic violence. However, it presents unique characteristics due to the space in which it is carried out, such as anonymity of the aggressor, the speed with which the violence is replicated and permanence of the violent content online,” says Marieliv.
What is the Impact of Online Violence on Vulnerable Groups?
From her previous research, while working with hiperderecho, Marieliv notes that online gender-based violence aims to erase people who question gender roles, and who promote a pro-human rights agenda, in addition to making indigenous or Afro-descendant people invisible. “The people who are most vulnerable to this violence are women, people from the LGTBQI+ community, and activists for equal rights,” she adds.
In fact, a 2015 report by United Nations Broadband Commission notes that three-quarters of women who are online have experienced some form of cyber violence while the GLAAD Social Media Safety Index (2021) finds most social media platforms unsafe for LGBTQ users.
A 2020 report by Plan International, dubbed Free To Be Online, observed that some of the girls they interviewed avoided being online because of previous abuse while others spent less time online. Research done by Birmingham Young University over a 10-year period showed that time spent online increased suicide risks in girls.
Additionally, this report by International Center for Research by Women (ICRW) points out that technology-assisted gender-based violence may impact survivors differently in different ways. The report divides impact into the following 5 categories: psychological (e.g., shame, depression or fear); physical (e.g., self-harm, assault or arrest); functional (e.g., changing a route or taking down a profile); economic (e.g., extortion or loss of income-generating or educational opportunities); and social (e.g., excluded by family, friends or coworkers).
Leaving is not an option for everyone; it is our space too!
How Can We Stay Safe?
Social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are not only used for social purposes but for marketing businesses and art and sharing job opportunities as well. They are also avenues for discussing issues that affect specific groups in society. Therefore, while some may opt to leave because of the toxicity of these platforms, others may not have an option at all.
So how can we stay safe online? According to Marieliv, it is important to develop healthy habits like creating strong passwords, having good (feminist) support networks and for adult men to step up and set good examples for boys in ending online gender-based violence. We must also continue to encourage girls to take part in careers in technology.
Women networks and organisations all over the world are doing a commendable job in trying to equip vulnerable groups with safety skills. For example, Safe Sisters created a guide with information on what to do when one is hacked, how one should stay safe while sharing devices, the importance of reviewing privacy settings on social media sites and checking app permissions, e.t.c. The guide further cautions that while social media is a convenient way of socializing and staying in touch with friends and family, one should choose wisely what messages, videos and images they post. After all, nothing online ever really disappears. We frequently leave our digital footprints. The Safe Sisters guide is translated into different languages.
But platforms also need to take responsibility by having stronger policies and effective implementation mechanisms. This 2021 analysis by Amnesty International, for instance, observes that Twitter fails to protect women and non-binary users on their platform. In the analysis, Amnesty makes recommendations on what Twitter can do to improve, including increasing transparency on appeals and content moderation, offering more guidance on appeals and education of users on harmful practices online and privacy.
In this report, the Web Foundation recommends that tech companies can build better ways for women to curate their own safety online by providing easy access to navigation and access to safety tools, using more simple and accessible language and offering women enough options to avoid abuse in their comments. They also propose that reporting systems can be improved by providing more policy and product guidance, offering users the ability to track and manage their reports, creating more support mechanisms during the reporting process and providing opportunities for users to give additional context when reporting, to make it easier to for platforms to understand why that particular content is abusive.
Open Government Partnership (OGP) can play a role in ensuring that vulnerable communities stay safe online. OGP members need to create commitments around safer internet as well as hold companies accountable. They can also be proactive in establishing funding for the creation of safety tools and also support civil society organisations committed to creating a safer internet space. The funding can also go towards translating already existing information/tools into more accessible languages and forms. Lastly, they need to see to it that there are necessary laws in place to ensure there’s online safety.
Early this week, the world marked Safer Internet Day, an opportunity to delve into the subject of online safety. In this spirit, Open Heroines is happy to share a digital safety resource known as Digital Safetea, created by Pollicy (founded by Open Heroine, Neema Iyer). Digital Safetea is an interactive fiction game that presents scenarios to learn about existing and emerging digital safety issues.