Technology has linked much of the world together, but in its complexity and ubiquity, technology also has a deeply personal characteristic. It has enabled us to build relationships and has become a part of our daily lives, something we carry in our pockets wherever we go. This duality of tech and particularly the Internet – its simultaneous ability to be vast yet intimate – has enabled people to express themselves in unique ways, but also brought with it some serious challenges. Where open channels into each other’s lives exist, the spread of harassment, abuse and vitriol can be equally pervasive and personal.
Alarmingly, research and testimony are increasingly showing what many women have long known, that the Internet is not an equal space. The online landscape bears more risks for women than for men, and gets riskier depending on other parts of her identity, such as race or religion, or if she works as a journalist or in another public facing job. Attacks and abuse online can include stalking, rape threats, doxing, the nonconsensual disclosure of sexually explicit images and videos, Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, and a barrage of other harassment with the intent to shame and silence. The most severe attacks can spill over into violence in the real world, and threaten a woman’s life.
As a result of the scale of this type of abuse, some women have resorted to self-censorship or have disengaged from their work or online platforms. In an era where technology is quickly becoming everything, the consequences of women being unable to access the Internet safely and securely, without facing misogynist abuse, cannot be overstated, and have a direct impact on women’s right to freedom of expression as well as equality in society as a whole.
Despite all the risks and challenges that addressing online harassment and abuse entails, women have taken action to speak out against it, and find ways to challenge this in the online sphere. Women have used technology to build solidarity networks for one another in response to these threats, such as HeartMob, Take Back the Tech, and Digital Rights Foundation’s Cyber harassment helpline. These initiatives, created by women for women, provide invaluable resources on how to respond to specific online threats, offering documentation capabilities and messages of support to those faced with online harassment.
Equally, in the US, the chorus of #MeToo has shown the power of online social movements in effecting real world changes and challenging societal attitudes and norms on sexual harassment. In this instance, women were able to connect individual experiences into a shared push for change. These types of movements to counter discrimination and abuse can be powerful, and show how the Internet can be harnessed for the progression of women’s rights. It shows how, when women have full access to technological platforms that have been utilized by perpetrators of violence, they can reclaim them to amplify their voices and challenge discrimination.
Ensuring women are free from abuse and able to speak out in these spheres is not only essential to bringing about equality online, but in society as well. As internet usage continues to grow around the world, we must ensure its opportunities for connection and expression are available to all, without abuse or discrimination.
Today, International Women’s Day, is an opportunity for global solidarity and joint action. Across the world, women are using social media to speak in unison about gender equality. We must continue to speak up against online abuse, and take action to ensure the internet is a space for all.