ARTICLE 19 welcomes the establishment of the White House Task Force to Address Online Harassment and Abuse and the opportunity to inform the Task Force’s work.
The organisation made a submission to the task force on 19 September, highlighting a key area of concern: online harassment and abuse, particularly for women and LGBTQI+ human rights defenders, journalists and activists.
ARTICLE 19 has substantial experience working on this issue globally, regionally, and nationally, primarily through analysis of existing and draft legislation; training and support to journalists and human rights defenders confronted with online harassment and abuse; multi-stakeholder coalition building; and advocating for strong regional and global policy and protections. Our work on standard-setting is based on evidence that the right to freedom of expression and the rights to equality and non-discrimination are mutually reinforcing, and thus inform this submission.
Combatting online harassment and abuse and the right to freedom of expression
International standards and guarantees of freedom of expression provide the framework for the right to equality and combatting discrimination. The right to freedom of expression requires equal access to the spaces for public debate, and for people to be equally able to share ideas and opinions without censorship or fear of retaliation.
However, systemic discrimination has led to barriers for many people, including women, LGBTQI+ people and people of colour, to fully exercising their right to freedom of expression. This is particularly the case in the digital sphere, where online harassment and abuse is acute for people facing systemic discrimination, and who have public profiles or conduct public-facing work. Women journalists and human rights defenders who speak out against government abuses, crime and corruption, and women’s rights issues are at particular risk of attack in an attempt to silence them.
ARTICLE 19 has found that when women are routinely faced with online threats or other digital attacks, it has a troubling impact on their right to freedom of expression and has large-scale setbacks for gender equality. The volume and severity of attacks can lead to self-censorship, psycho-social trauma and can have the effect of driving women, LGBTQI+ people and people of colour offline and out of debate. Online harassment and abuse can be harbingers to threats against physical safety, and in some cases, existing evidence shows that serious forms of abuse have led to physical attacks and loss of life.
Understanding online harassment and abuse
Although digital technologies have created new opportunities for people to communicate and organise, they have also reproduced – and in some instances, accentuated – discrimination.
Online abuse and harassment has become both more prevalent and more coordinated. It can take many forms, including surveillance, threats, non-consensual distribution of intimate or sexual images, stalking, and doxxing: the public dissemination of a woman’s personal information. It can have deep impacts on professions and lives. It can result in a range of psychological and emotional harms. It is important to understand online harassment and abuse in its complexity: its enabling factors, the local yet global nature of the phenomenon; the legal, social, political and economic elements of an attack; the impacts on the right to freedom of expression, as well as how it impacts people of various identities differently.
In line with this approach, ARTICLE has developed various recommendations through its monitoring, legal and policy work at national, regional and international level.
The experience of women journalists
ARTICLE 19 has particular expertise in understanding and combatting online harassment and abuse for women journalists, with one of our key initiatives being the promotion of a feminist approach towards the safety of journalists. ARTICLE 19’s work across the world has consistently shown that women journalists experience an additional layer of risk compared to their male counterparts by virtue of their gender.
In developing comprehensive and tailored measures to prevent, protect against and remedy attacks, it is vital to understand the different types of threats that women journalists face, and how certain threats may be experienced differently by women journalists based upon other forms of their identities.
ARTICLE 19 has documented women’s monumental efforts to make structural changes, tackle entrenched patterns of gender-based discrimination and violence, and good practices from around the world. The organisation highlights the importance of strengthening solidarity networks, supporting those who speak out, funding feminist approaches to online safety for women and LGBTQI journalists, tackling impunity and seeking accountability, allowing women to design their own safety protocols, and sharing accessible resources on prevention and protection.
The role of social media companies
Social media companies have a role to play in both enabling peoples’ right to freedom of expression and also addressing gender-based harassment and abuse against them on their platforms, including on prevention of harm and harassment. For years, concerns have been raised regarding how the three major social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (Google) – have inconsistently applied their rules, policies and community guidelines as well as how they develop and enforce these rules in practice.
Social media platforms have established policies to address harassment and abuse and these policies are updated regularly and could be applied in cases of gender-based harassment and abuse against women. However, the terms are often broad and vague, causing confusion, but also leaving platforms the flexibility to use these policies to their own needs. ARTICLE 19 notes that there is often a lack of consistent enforcement of the rules despite all three platforms providing reporting mechanisms.
Furthermore, new technologies and platforms are being developed and used without sufficient gender analysis of their impact. While new technologies can provide women and LGBTQI+ with vital tools to communicate and empower themselves, the way in which many of these technologies are developed and implemented often has the effect of embedding or further enabling discrimination against them.
ARTICLE 19’s submission highlights that artificial intelIigence-driven identification, profiling and automated decision-making may lead to unfair, discriminatory, or biased outcomes. It also highlights emotion recognition technology and its use to identify, surveil, track, and classify individuals, which can contribute to discrimination and marginalisation.
Multi-stakeholder and multi-layered approach
ARTICLE 19 works in collaboration with multiple actors in order to provide efficient and effective solutions, including with other non-government organisations, international and regional inter-governmental institutions, tech and media companies and States. It works to ensure that solutions, particularly on a case level, are rooted in the local context, they are free speech-compliant and in line with needs and consent of the women who are being targeted.
There is a large body of evidence indicating that a particular barrier to justice for women journalists who face online threats and attacks is a failure of public authorities to take these threats seriously. States must efficiently investigate threats and attacks on women journalists, and ensure the protection of women journalists against online harassment and abuse by creating an online environment in which women’s rights to freedom of expression is guaranteed. To address this, ARTICLE 19 has produced a policy brief examining the scope of State obligations to address online harassment and abuse of women journalists, with recommendations on how to conduct effective investigations.
The broader picture
It is important to understand the broader ecosystem of discrimination in which online harassment and abuse takes place, and to understand it is directly linked to gender-based disinformation and violence. Disinformation reinforces a culture of misogyny and patriarchal power structures that enable gender-based violence to occur with impunity.
The internet itself is inherently biased. Its architecture, software and hardware is overwhelmingly created, legislated and governed by those in privileged positions, such as cisgender men, largely from a Western context. The digital landscape is not gender neutral, often replicating historical discriminatory trends and amplifying them. The top internet and technology companies are imbalanced when it comes to gender demographics.
Recent reports have pointed to heavily male-dominated cultures within technology companies, with women engineers reporting harassment, intimidation and repercussions to their career advancement when reporting on such incidents. Such a culture discourages, prevents and penalises women for partaking in and seeking to shape the technology sector. This is correlated with the rise of online harassment and abuse against women and LGBTQI+ people.
Read these related ARTICLE 19 resources, and refer to the submission for a more comprehensive list of these resources.
Digital crime scenes: The role of digital evidence in the persecution of LGBTQ people in Egypt, Lebanon and Tunisia