GBV

Why the Internet Must Become Feminist

Photo credit: Ehsan Kabir, Plan International

Photo credit: Ehsan Kabir, Plan International

This text was originally published on Plan International’s website on Apr. 25, 2019 to mark. International Girls in ICT Day.

“You’re simply the best”, “Hero!!!”, “I’m in awe of you”, “You Are a Great Leader!”

So read some of the thousands of comments on Greta Thunberg’s Twitter feed. Yet despite the 16-year-old climate change activist galvanising over 1.6 million people to act through her school strike for climate action, you don’t have to do a lot digging online to find the backlash. There are claims of Greta spreading ”propaganda”, calls for her to return to school and stop inciting other children to strike. 

This is not surprising. While the internet and social media have been huge enablers for Greta’s message to reach millions, her activism has also made her a target for the trolls, cyberbullies, and fake accounts well-known to many activists online. 

The World Wide Web, 30 years old this year, is not a friendly place for girls and women. And the more vocal they are, the worse the abuse. Research reveals that female politicians on social media are over 3 times more likely to experience derogatory comments* related to their gender than their male counterparts. Younger women are disproportionately targeted. 

The Role of Bots

Increasingly, this violence is perpetrated not only by humans, but by bots too. Around half of all web traffic today is created by bots*. Some are eminently useful, performing tasks such as repairing links, removing vandalism and tagging articles on Wikipedia. 

However, bots, like any technology, are not neutral. They do what they were programmed to do and some actively uphold inequalities and crowd out alternative views online. 

Social bots, essentially fake accounts that imitate real humans, are creating a growing amount of content on social media. Some 15% of all active Twitter accounts are presumed bots*, but they punch above their weight; unlike humans, bots don’t need to eat or sleep – they can post content 24/7. This makes it possible for bot-created content to flood social media streams, skewing public debate and amplifying hateful rhetoric, violence, and abuse. 

For instance, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton received supporting messages from social bots* in the 2016 US elections. However, Trump had more bots producing positive messages about him, while half of bot-produced messages about Clinton criticised her. Bots are also contributing to Instagram’s massive harassment problem as well as spreading anti-Muslim rhetoric and fake news across social media.

We Need More Women in Tech

With the web increasingly created by bots, who creates them is an important question. As the tech sector remains dominated by men, it’s fair to assume they create most bots. This has consequences in terms of what bots are designed to do and what problems they solve - or create. 

The founder of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, is rightfully worried about the future of the web. In his annual letter this year he highlights harassment as one of the central problems affecting the internet today, contributing to making “many people feel afraid and unsure if the web is really a force for good.” He calls for us to step up “to make sure [the web] is recognised as a human right and built for the public good.”

As we step up, the “we” must include girls and women. For 3 decades, the World Wide Web has been a playground where the rules – or rather the lack of rules – have been determined by far too few. It’s been a place where hatred and violence have been allowed to thrive, where success has been defined based on number of engagements, not whether those engagements are useful, safe, or even made by a real human. 

No more. Being female online should not be a synonym for being abused. We need a web that is created by a diverse group of people, putting equality at the centre of its structures and processes. A web where girls, women, and other marginalised groups can exercise their freedom of expression without harassment. A web that allows the Gretas of the world to thrive and that amplifies the voices of those otherwise not heard. We need a feminist web. 

Change is Vital so Girls Get Equal

Concrete action is needed to make that happen. The lack of diversity in tech is keeping the internet from reaching its potential for good. We need to create opportunities in the technology sector, so girls and women can be involved in determining how the web operates, and what type of bots are allowed to operate and how. 

We also need social media platforms to improve their processes for reporting and dealing with abuse so that girls can safely create content that represents their views and needs. Facebook, for instance, currently does not differentiate abuse relating to gender, causing much of the abuse suffered by girls and women to go unidentified. Significantly, social media platforms, including Twitter and Instagram, must put user rights and safety before profits and growth. Bots masquerading as real humans must be banned. 

Meanwhile, governments must ensure legal frameworks stay up-to-date with technological developments, so perpetrators of online abuse, including bots, are stopped and held to account.

Through our youth-led, global campaign, Girls Get Equal, Plan International is making sure girls and young women have power over their lives and can shape the world around them – online and off. As we celebrate Girls in ICT Day today, we are encouraging girls all over the world to get into tech and help us make sure the web is a safe place for us all to exercise our rights – to help us make the World Wide Web feminist. 

Girls' freedom online is under attack

Photo credit: Tian Bo, Plan International

Photo credit: Tian Bo, Plan International

As part of Plan International’s efforts to mark the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence, my fantastic colleague Policy and Advocacy Advisor Leila Asrari, and I wrote the below piece, originally published on the Plan International website.

Compared to their male peers, girls online are facing more threats of sexual violence, more comments about their appearance and behaviour, and are more often told not to speak out and have an opinion. We need to reclaim the internet for girls, assert our experts, Leila Asrari and Nora Lindstrom.

Violence against girls online is a growing issue. As an increasing share of our lives are spent online, we’re also seeing harassment and abuse take new forms in the online space. Plan International’s research shows that just as in the offline world, harassment and bullying online is gendered. While many young people struggle with the pressures of social media, compared to their male peers, girls online are facing more threats of sexual violence, more comments about their appearance and behaviour, and are more often told not to speak out and have an opinion.

Violence and harassment are being used, both incidentally and strategically, to silence the voices of girls and women, and to limit their engagement in political debates online. This activity mirrors concerning behaviours towards women negotiating political spaces. In a recent global survey it was found that almost half of women in politics have faced serious abuse, including threats of murder, rape and assault. One fifth said they had been subjected to sexual violence.

In addition, in 2016, FRIDA reported that over half of 1500 young women, girl and trans-led organisations they interviewed regularly felt unsafe because of the work they do. So, we are seeing that for those girls and women who take on political leadership responsibility, or who challenge the status quo, there are significant threats – different in nature, and higher in prevalence, than those faced by men.

GIRLS’ FREEDOM, VOICE, AND AGENCY ONLINE IS UNDER ATTACK

For girls, navigating the online world brings with it these threats and more. The statistics are alarming. In Sweden, one of the most gender equal countries in the world, over half of all girls’ online report having been contacted for a sexual purpose by someone they think is an adult. In neighbouring Norway, 16-year-old girls are most at risk: 40% report unwanted sexual attention online over the past year. Only 13% of boys report the same. While global data on girls’ experiences online is scarce, experiences of women suggest the problem is global: 45% of women in Kampala and 21% of women in Nairobi have been harassed or threatened online; seven out of ten 18-24 year old women who use the internet daily have been subject to online abuse.

The threats that girls and young women face when navigating the online space are real. However, our response must not be to limit girls’ online voice, agency and freedom – protection should not mean exclusion. We must approach the question of digital safety, access and voice not simply from an individual, one-to-one perspective, but also in light of the internet being a core social structure, and a crucial platform for active citizenship and voice. If we do not support young people to exercise their voice and agency online, we risk weakening the civil society of future generations.

Already, of children interviewed across 60 countries, only 34% felt safe expressing their views in public and only 38% felt safe attending public protests and demonstrations. Responses to ensure girls’ safety and freedom online as well as their access and use of digital platforms must address the question of girls’ right to have a voice, both online and off.

Plan International’s new global campaign, Girls Get Equal, is about ensuring every girl and young woman has power over her own life and can shape the world around her. 

Girls also need to get equal online. The online space is not subject to the same scrutiny of ‘real-life’ public spaces, nor are legislative frameworks as strong. This leaves children and young people vulnerable to violence and harassment, in a world from which they should not be expected simply to disengage. Much like the response to violence against girls and women in public spaces should not be to restrict their freedom of movement, responding to gender-based violence online needs to be about making the internet a safe space – we need to reclaim the internet for girls.

EVERYONE HAS A ROLE TO PLAY

Governments need to strengthen legislation and increase cooperation to ensure perpetrators of violence online are held to account. The tech industry needs to take clear actions to ensure that social media is safe for children and young people, implementing strong reporting mechanisms and responding to reports of violence or abuse sensitively and efficiently.

Educational institutions all over need to ensure children know their rights and responsibilities online, and understand how to stay safe, and how to report violence and abuse. Children and youth also need better education on human rights and gender-based violence – for instance through citizenship education, or comprehensive sexuality education. 

SUPPORT GIRLS: SIGN THE PLEDGE

We can be positive citizens online, speaking out against violence and abuse, reporting it where we see it, and standing up for victims. We can encourage others, especially children and young people, to use the internet to explore their voice, and to speak out on issues that they care about or that affect their lives. And we can all ask more of those in positions to make online spaces safer for others. 

To start with, we can all sign on to Plan International’s pledge for girls’ freedom. This 16 days of activism, we can all do our part to stand up for the rights of all to feel safe navigating online spaces, we’ve signed – we hope you do too!