Jazmin Wright | Cyber & Tech Fellow
Image: (In)justice via Unsplash
The 25th of November is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, recognising the role of gender-based violence against women and gender diverse people. Gender-based violence (GBV) is a harmful action against another person or people on the basis of sexual or gender identity, or by enforcing harmful gender norms. 85 per cent of women have reported witnessing online violence against other women from within and outside of their networks, and 65 per cent of women have reported knowing other women who have been targeted online from within their own networks. This is a worrying number, and highlights the importance and urgency that this is addressed promptly and proactively.
While violence against women and girls is, unfortunately, not a new occurrence, the development of technology has opened a new arena for GBV to occur. The increased usage of social media and digital spaces has led to the increase of significant threats to women's safety online, which can also impact their offline safety. Technology-facilitated GBV is using the internet and other technologies to harm on the basis of gender and comprised of various behaviours, such as cyber-stalking, defamation, intimidation, and exploitation.
Unlike 'traditional', offline GBV, technology-facilitated GBV can be anonymous, given that perpetrators can hide their true identity. This, coupled with the fact that technology is constantly evolving, and regulation and adequate protections of technology users are often lagging behind, make it challenging for victims to get justice. Cyberbullying and online harassment can impact anyone in the digital space However, more often than not, these harmful acts disproportionately affect women and girls.
GBV can take shape in various forms, such as image- and video-based abuse, violent threats via online channels, misinformation and slander, and doxing - with all having been reported prevalent against women. While these statistics tell a grim story, GBV online often goes unreported, with The Economist Intelligence Unit reporting that only 1 in 4 women have reported harmful behaviour to the online platforms on which it occurred.
In recent years, one of the most commonly discussed forms of technology-facilitated GBV is image- and video-based abuse, which is when one shares, or threatens to share, intimate images or videos of another without the consent of the person in the image or video. Perpetrators of image- and video-based abuse aim to manipulate, punish, control, or humiliate the victim and can impact the victim's life and future. One form of this abuse is sexual extortion, or 'sextortion' for short. This is where someone attempts to blackmail another over an intimate image or video, with the aim of receiving money, more intimate images or videos, or for humiliation or control.
Another form of image- and video-based abuse is deepfakes. A deepfake is an image or video which has been edited by transposing a person's face onto another image or video, often sexual or intimate in nature. As artificial intelligence improves, so does the ability to create a deepfake, as it only requires one photo to replicate the likeness of an individual, and thus, produce an authentic-seeming image or video.
Similar to sextortion, producers of deepfakes ignore the importance of consent, and open the floodgates to a new potential to commit technology-facilitated GBV. Deepfakes can be used for sextortion, particularly if the perpetrator knows the victim, or they can be used to violate a victim for the perpetrator's gain. What makes this form of technology-facilitated GBV more dangerous is the degree of separation from the victim. Given that it is the victim's likeness being used without their consent, and often, without their knowledge or direct connection to the perpetrator,, anyone can potentially become a victim to deepfakes. Overwhelmingly, however, it is commonly perpetrated against women, with 90% of the nonconsensual deepfake pornography online depicting women.
Another notable form of technology-facilitated GBV is doxing. Doxing, short for 'dropping dox' (with 'dox' being short for 'documents'), is the act of revealing identifying or sensitive information about an individual online. This may include addresses, workplaces, phone numbers or other personal information, which are released without the victim's consent. The act of doxing has reportedly increased recently in Tunisia and other Arab states, wherein personal and sensitive information has been released on social media to harass and intimidate protestors, LGBTQIA+ activists, and commonly, women.
The rapid evolution of technology means that addressing technology-facilitated GBV is critical. While technology-facilitated GBV itself is damaging and harmful to victims, it can also lead to and exacerbate offline forms of GBV, such as intimate partner violence, sexual exploitation and harassment, and stalking. These flow-on effects, combined with the direct impacts of technology-facilitated GBV, highlight the importance of addressing GBV in digital spaces.
Firstly, a noticeable challenge to addressing technology-facilitated GBV is the lack of research and data in this space. Understanding the rates of victimisation, the means to perpetrate technology-facilitated GBV, profiles of perpetrators, and drivers of online violence are critical to inform prevention, mitigation, and response tactics. more information and data in this area will foster greater awareness about technology-facilitated GBV, enabling victims to be heard and taken seriously.
Second, proactively regulating and calling for better protections in online spaces is paramount,. reporting mechanisms act as the primary means for users to protect themselves and their community. Yet while most platforms consider ‘more severe’ forms of GBV, such as image- and video- based abuse, in its reporting systems, verbal abuse and misogynistic language can fall through the cracks of these mechanisms, enabling it to continue and go unreported. These systems must thus be altered to allow reports of online GBV in all its forms.
It is important to also have better moderation practices in online spaces. This could include better detection of inappropriate behaviour and GBV through informed recognition.. Human moderators are able to understand nuances of language and social contexts, however, this also enables implicit biases to ignore and overlook GBV in its more-subtle forms. Ensuring that human moderators have a clear understanding of what constitutes GBV is important when tackling it online.
Technology-facilitated GBV, and online violence in general, has been known about since the early days of the internet. However, limited action has been taken by social media platforms and other digital spaces to ensure adequate protection of its users. The onus falls on these platforms to create a safe space where people are free to be online
This is not to suggest that technology is malicious, though, technology-facilitated GBV demonstrates how technology can be used for malicious intent. As technology continues to evolve, regulators and decision-makers need to adapt to its dangers. This demands research into the role of technology in GBV, mitigation strategies, victim protection and perpetrator prosecution. The relationships between research and thought-leadership, and regulators and decision-makers are critical in effectively combatting technology-facilitated GBV.
Jazmin Wright is the Cyber and Technology Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs and is currently working in digital and technology risk. She is currently the Vice President at the Young Diplomats Society and the Editor-In-Chief at the Australia-Pacific Youth Dialogue.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of any other entity.