“It’s about how we can get women who want to enter public life to be more resilient online,” Seyi Akiwowo said. “Online abuse is not going to disappear, but you can mitigate it and how it impacts you, and there are ways you can protect yourself.”
For women and girls, the internet can be a dangerous place. Threats, intimidation, extortion attempts are just some of the ways that abuse online takes place. The abuse comes because of what the victim has said, or the group they belong to, the cause they are advocating or in many cases, simply because they are female.
For Akiwowo a moment of online triumph turned into a nightmare.
It was 2017, and a video clip of Akiwowo making a speech at the European Youth Event at the European Parliament had been picked up by a fellow blogger. The clip showed her advocating that former colonizer countries should pay reparations to colonized countries as a way to spur development and perhaps curb migration.
Akiwowo knew her activism could be problematic online. She is a woman of colour (Akiwowo is of Nigerian descent), young and politically active (at 23 years old she was one of the youngest elected officials in her local London borough in the United Kingdom), which made her a target, she said.
Initially, the comments about her speech were positive. But then the trolls came. Soon her social media in boxes were flooded with abuse, she said. She was told “get lynched…”, to “f*** off back to Africa” and many variations of other racial and gender-based insults. It went on for months.
“It was a storm of abuse, with racist tones and misogyny and it was relentless,” Akiwowo recalled. “I realized that I wasn’t the only one that had experienced things like this. So I thought, there’s a glitch in this online world that can be fixed.”
Misogyny goes digital
Digital media has opened the door for new forms of oppression and violence against women. And when those women also happen to be human rights defenders, or politically active, vocal or challenging the status quo or commenting on areas that are seen to be “male” this can be even more difficult, said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.
“Online campaigns against women human rights defenders and organisations aim to damage their credibility as advocates, to diminish or obliterate the po9wer of their voices and to restrict the already limited public space in which women activists can mobilise and make a difference,” he said.
Indeed, a recent report by the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Ms. Dubravka Simonovic, estimated that 23 percent of women have reported experiencing online abuse or harassment at least once in their life, and that one in 10 women has experience some form of online violence since the age of 15.
“Women are both disproportionately targeted by online violence and suffer disproportionately serious consequences as a result,” she said.
The nature of attacks on women human rights defenders and activists is different, said, said Nighat Dad, Executive director of the Digital Rights Foundation in Pakistan. During instances of online gender based violence, she had routinely noticed that the attacks against women activists have been personal. Women are criticised for the clothes they wear, how they smoke a cigarette, there are calls for them to be assaulted or raped, Dad said.
“While not abuse against anyone is less terrible than the other, but the men are abused, they are abused based on their work. But when a woman is involved, the attacks become personal. Body shaming, character assassination, rape threats, you name it.”
The kinds of attacks women face include: “doxxing” — the publication of private information such as contact details online with malicious intent; “trolling” — which is the posting of messages, uploading images, creating hashtags, all for the purpose of provoking, annoying or inciting violence; “mobbing” — which is a form of online bullying that follows the victim across platforms.
The results of online harassment is stark: women have reported mental health issues such as depression. Others report feeling unsafe. Some ARE unsafe, with online threats turning into off line actions (In India, Gauri Lankesh, a journalist who published criticism of Hindu extremism was killed last year following widespread calls online for violence against her.)
“As a result, (women) start self-censoring and in the worse-case they leave the online spaces altogether in hopes of staying physically safe,” Dad said.
To fight digital abuse, women and girls need to take back the digital space, Akiwowo said. Much like being in an actual, physical space, women and girls need to continue to assert their presence, to BE there, she said.
“Human rights are important here,” Akiwowo said. “There must be a human rights based approach to this. To have women stay online is to have women understand that they have the right to be online.”
And she did try to fix it. Today, Akiwowo runs Glitch!UK, a not for profit organisation dedicated to preventing online abuse through advocacy, training and campaigning. She helps other activists and individuals online by teaching people how to take care of themselves and stay safe online.
Women and girls aren’t helpless in the face of online violence and abuse. During a panel discussion that took place during the Human Rights Council in Geneva, recently, experts and activists discussed solutions — both in law and in practice — that can help women and girls better protect themselves against violence online.
It is also about using technology to keep safe, said Matt Mitchell. Mitchell is a hacker and the director of Digital Safety and Privacy at Tactical Tech. The group works with activists and human rights defenders and recommends to have better control over your personal data.
Identity is often what is used to torment and abuse online activists, Mitchell said. Having better control over you digital identity and footprint, through things like using secure communications technology including encryption and conducting detailed exploration of what data is out there.
“It’s about understanding tech and knowing that your identity is your strength, not the thing that causes you problems,” Mitchell said. “We can use tech to protect ourselves.”
Dad agreed. Her group, Digital Rights Foundation, helps train women human rights defenders in Pakistan how to counter cyber harassment. “Our approach has been to weaponise reporting mechanism — report against the person or group attacking you and hold social media companies accountable and shame them if there is a lack of response,” she said.
States also have a role to play. Special Rapporteur Simonvic called for the recognition of the principle of human rights, including women’s human rights, be protected offline should be protected online as well.
“One of the many challenges in the fight against online violence against women is that most states still fail to recognize violence against women in the digital space as a real form of violence and the urgent need for specialized legislative measures at the national level,” she said.
Indeed, Akiwowo said that using human rights as the base for combatting online abuse is key. Before she started online campaigning through her group Glitch! UK, she would hear, mainly from men, that calling out and combating harassment online was infringing on another right — freedom of expression.
“Actually, being a woman of colour online and be able to say what I want to say is infringing on my freedom of expression,” she said. “Now there is a redressing of the balance of who gets to exercise their rights.”