Girls in ICT Day

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. 

Don't let tech leave girls behind

Photo by G. Van Buggenhout for Plan International. 

Photo by G. Van Buggenhout for Plan International. 

Wrote this piece for Plan International (my employer) on the occasion of Girls in ICT Day 2018. 

If Alexa or Siri could, they’d probably be saying “Me too”. But they haven’t been programmed that way. Instead, these personal assistant bots are more likely to be evasive or even respond positively when sexually harassed. While officially genderless, both Siri and Alexa have feminine names and default female voices; it’s hard not to see their evasion as condoning the sexual harassment of women. 

Neither Siri nor Alexa of course have a mind of their own. They have been programmed to respond to prompts in one way or another. Last year, digital news outlet Quartz tested how they respond to sexual harassment: in response to “You’re a slut”, Siri said “I’d blush if I could”. Someone had programmed it that way. 

I bet that person was a man: some three-quarters of staff in tech firms are.

Girls must be encouraged to create

The digital gender divide is particularly large when it comes to girls and women as creators of technology. As AI becomes ubiquitous, this is increasingly a problem: without girls' and women's perspectives, we risk creating tools, solutions, and systems that reproduce and perpetuate existing gender inequalities – as well as fail to address the unique issues and challenges girls and women face.

This is not merely a hypothetical risk. Already, we’ve seen “comprehensive” health apps that come without period trackers because the developers didn’t see menstruation as a core bodily function worth tracking. Research has shown that AI-powered facial recognition systems are particularly poor at recognising darker skinned women’s faces. And machines currently provide gender-biased translationacross languages, assuming someone who is a nurse, for example, is always a woman.

This is a problem. Women and girls constitute half of the world’s inhabitants, and if we’re not involved in creating our common digital future, it will be created for us. 

Getting tech into the hands of girls

As a girls’ rights organisation, Plan International is working to get technology and technical skills into the hands of girls themselves. We believe it is vital to provide girls in developing countries, including those without access to formal education, with opportunities to themselves create technology and digital solutions that address their needs – which is essential. A "brogrammer" in Silicon Valley is unlikely to understand what benefits a teenage girl in Ecuador could gain from technology.

We walk the talk too. In Uganda and Ethiopia, we have set up SmartUp Factory innovation hubs, where marginalised youth – including girls – can access and try out digital tools and technologies. In an environment that is safe for and encouraging of girls, they are supported to develop their own solutions for communal problems using methodologies such as human-centred design. 

In Timor-Leste, Plan International has worked with girls and young women to develop the country’s first sexual and reproductive health app, designed to provide youth with easy access to reliable information on topics they often have no one to ask about. And in China, we have worked with teachers to influence their views on which gender is more “suitable” for careers in ICT. 

This work is important. If we don’t want women looking for a job online to be less likely to be showntargeted ads for high-paying roles than their male counterparts, and if don’t want AI to be more likely to label people who are cooking and cleaning as women, but people who are playing sports and shooting as men, we need to increase the number of women engaged in creating technology. 

Digital equality will help create an equal society

We also need to make technology our ally. Beyond creating digital tools and solutions that address the needs of girls and women, like apps to improve street safety or ones that connect mothers and mothers-to-be, we need to explore the potential of creating gender transformative technology, i.e. tech that seeks to transform unequal gender power relations and actively challenges the prevailing status quo. 

An example of this type of tech is Sheboard, a predictive text app developed by Plan International in Finland together with girls and young women. The app works just like a regular keyboard, but challenges prevailing gender stereotypes of girls being primarily pretty or beautiful, by suggesting empowering words such as “strong”, “smart”, and “clever”, following phrases like “I am” or “my daughter is”.

The future is digital, and if the majority of humankind is not involved in creating that future, we’re in trouble. Instead of allowing tech to perpetuate gender inequality, let’s harness its power for the opposite and create a gender equal society where no one loses out.