The Internet as an Intensified Avenue for Violence Against Women in Pandemic Times: An Exploration
Author: Louisa Andrews
In 2015, a 29-year-old Australian man named Chris Hall screenshotted a selfie that Olivia Melville posted on her Tinder profile (Lattouf, 2016). The photograph had a suggestive caption taken from a song lyric by the singer, Nicki Minaj – specifically, “The type of girl that will suck you dry and then eat some lunch with you” – from the 2014 album, ‘The Pinkprint’. Hall shared the photo of Melville as a screenshot to his Facebook page, posting disparaging comments about Melville’s weight – despite never meeting or even knowing her (Lattouf, 2016).
This inappropriate and violating behaviour was escalated when Hall’s friends shared the post thousands of times. They did not stop there; they investigated her address, phone number, and details of her loved ones. Hall and his friends then sent repeated rape threats, along with a barrage of harassing and violent comments to Melville, rendering her too scared to leave her house (Lattouf, 2016).
A particularly vile rape threat by Hall’s friend, Zach Alchin, prompted Melville’s friends to report this distressing behaviour to both the police and the press. This resulted in Alchin’s arrest in an unprecedented case of using social media (as a carrier service) to menace, harass, or offend (under the 1997 Australian Telecommunications Law).
Despite pleading guilty, Alchin was sentenced to a meagre 12-month good behaviour bond (from a maximum of 3 years imprisonment), after the judge commented that Alchin’s words had simply been “taken a bit too far” without inciting violence or rape (Kembrey, 2016). This Judge made such a declaration despite one such “joke” being “You know the best thing about a feminist? They don’t get any action, so when you rape them, it feels 100 times tighter” (Vernon, 2016).
Despite ‘merely’ alluding to, rather than perpetuating rape, Alchin, Hall, and all those who joined in to threaten and shame Melville nonetheless violated her rights to safety, security, privacy, and expression. Too often, women are the victims of violence committed via technology – allowing for acts of violence and disempowerment of women to adapt and cause new ways of suffering (Web Foundation, 2020a).
An investigation of harassment and violence against women online might begin with the concept of trolling. However, women dealing with misogynistic trolls over the Internet is often a daily occurrence (Powell, 2016). Studies show that one in ten women have experienced harassment and/or misogyny on the Internet since the age of fifteen (Policy Department for Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs, 2018).
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced more of the world online than ever, and a 2020 survey by the Web Foundation found that over 52% of young women and girls had experienced online abuse, with 87% sharing their belief that the issue is getting worse. Women are also twenty-seven times more likely than men to face abuse on the Internet and social media (ARTE.tv Documentary, 2021).
The effects of this constant abuse can be incredibly damaging to one’s self-worth and sense of safety (Web Foundation, 2020b). According to the results of a 2017 research by the Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) a staggering 71% of women victims felt that the threat of online violence severely impacted their participation online – with many withdrawing from public discussions or social media platforms, and or removing themselves from social media altogether (Mutebi & Wagabaza, 2019).
In a world where the empowerment of women and girls is a constant uphill climb, women’s voices and perspectives are imperative (ARTE.tv Documentary, 2021). How can women advocate for their rights if they must continuously face harassment and threats to their safety every time they voice their opinion online?
After escaping from a prison basement where she had been captive for more than a decade(Ankel, 2019), Natascha Kampusch found herself as a brief international news figure. Natascha, who was a young adult at the time of her release, attempted to rebuild her life and even wrote a book documenting her experiences.
However, in a rather grotesque example of cyberbullying and online harassment the abuse she received online paralleled, and occasionally overshadowed, the abuse she had received from her captor: “… [After escaping] online abuse became a part of my everyday life. There were times where I didn’t even go out anymore because the abuse was so bad” (Ankel, 2019).
For a woman who had already spent a significant period of her life suffering abhorrent abuse to compare her experiences to the harassment directed at her online, one would expect that she would be entitled to justice – as she was for the physical crimes committed towards her. Unfortunately, as with Melville, this was not the case: “I filed so many complaints, but nothing ever happened because the reports were always in a grey area. For example, if someone told me to ‘go die’, the police would see it as a kind of suggestion, not an acute threat” (Ankel, 2019).
National laws regarding cyberbullying, trolling, and online abuse vary (Robinson, 2020), but there is a prevailing attitude that this abuse is somehow not as damaging or worthy of punishment as, say, physical abuse (Wihbey, July 13, & 2015, 2015). This is a perception that must change according to the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Dubravka Šimonović.
In a 2018 report on online violence as a violation of the rights of women, Šimonović expressed a view that “there is a significant risk that the use of information and communications technology (ICT) without proper human rights-based protection could even widen sex and gender-based discrimination, and increase violence against women and girls… As a matter of urgency, the international framework on the prohibition of violence against women should be applied to all forms of online violence against women and girls.”
Indeed, from a human rights perspective, both Melville and Kampusch’s rights are being repressed in favour of those who wish to do them harm (Heppe, 2018). According to the Submission by the Due Diligence Project to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, entitled Eliminating Online Violence Against Women and Engendering Digital Equality (Aziz, 2018), it is not an exercise of freedom of expression to consciously intimidate women online, express the wish to rape them, threaten to harm them or incite others to do so. This statement is pertinent to the backlash received by Melville in regard to her Tinder photo caption, and her abusers’ ‘freedom of expression’ being defended.
Melville was well within her rights to post whatever she wanted on her Tinder photograph, as long as it was within the app’s community guidelines. Alchin did not have the right to intimidate Melville and her friends – particularly through his allusion to rape.
Likewise, while the State does not bear the responsibility to protect individuals from the offense, it does have an obligation to protect individuals from harm (Aziz, 2018). The very fact that both these women were afraid to leave their houses for fear of violence, and that such a sizable percentage of women feel unsafe online, shows that the States are not upholding their responsibilities to women (Heppe, 2018).
Unfortunately, online violence against women is not only perpetrated by nameless strangers but is also wielded as a tool in domestic violence. This topic is particularly pertinent to the author, as Australia is sadly rather synonymous with intimate partner violence – to the extent of being declared a ‘national crisis’ in 2015, and has only worsened during the pandemic (Kennedy, 2020).
Technology has made our lives easier and more convenient; however, this convenience has also been exploited by abusers. With so many houses being equipped with internet-accessible surveillance and home devices, an alarming number of women are reporting new forms of gaslighting and controlling behaviour from within their homes (Bowles, 2018).
If a doorbell is rung long enough with no-one at the door, or the air conditioning is increased, despite just turning it down, it is enough to make anyone feel crazy (Bowles, 2018). Likewise, social media and phone apps enable abusers to keep track of their victims to extents that were not geographically and logistically possible before (Harris & Vitis, 2020). Online banking has imposed a new form of financial control (Bennett & Wootton, 2021).
In a recent article in the California Law Review (Lo, 2021), it was found that men are still the most likely in a domestic partnership to purchase and program internet-related devices and appliances. Considering men perpetrate a vast percentage of domestic abuse, victims and survivors of family violence often do not know how to change passwords (Powell, 2016).
This rising prevalence in internet-accessible surveillance devices in domestic abuse situations is tied to, and a violation of, the right to privacy, and consent, which, according to the Due Diligence Submission, “is the pillar around which preventive measures and post-incident responses are implemented and must be addressed in any mechanism dealing with online violence (Aziz, 2018).”
In most forms, internet abuse and violence against women violate the victim’s right to privacy – and, of course, once something finds its way onto the Internet, it is tough to remove it permanently (Goldstein, 2020). A women’s privacy is often violated even without her knowledge. This was demonstrated in 2019 when two men were arrested in South Korea after secretly filming, streaming, and charging viewers to watch hundreds of women in changing rooms (Taylor, 2019). Another horrific case from South Korea saw a woman commit suicide after discovering that she had been filmed without her consent while at a hospital (Taylor, 2019).
Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, law enforcement in South Korea has so far appeared very unwilling to hold men accountable for online violence (Taylor, 2019). This is in a sharp contrast to an offense perpetrated by a female model in South Korea, who was sentenced to ten months imprisonment after secretly filming and posting pictures of a male colleague (Taylor, 2019). A similar case with the genders reversed, however, saw the male perpetrator receive a fine of 2 million Won (approximately $1,686.34 USD).
Women must live in a world where they must be cautious with whom they trust, and often the trauma stemming from betrayal by those closest to them never truly goes away – this is even harder to forget online (Barr, 2019). It is almost impossible to discuss internet abuse targeted at women without considering the concept of revenge porn –. An investigation by The Washington Post in 2020 found that four out of 5 people from the United States had sent explicit texts or images; however, one in twenty-five had had those images distributed without their consent (Goldstein, 2020).
Most images that end up online are women (90% of photos, and 98% of videos featured on sites). Even more shockingly, 50% of revenge porn victims had their full name and social media profile uploaded alongside their images, and 20% of survivors had their phone numbers and email addresses also uploaded (Goldstein, 2020).
Victims of revenge porn reported lasting stigma that affected their employability and relationships, and those with their details exposed also felt their physical safety was at risk (Goldstein, 2020). Research shows that victims of revenge porn display similar, or identical, symptoms of trauma as victims of sexual assault, however, police services are often unequipped to provide support for revenge porn victims to the same extent (Goldstein, 2020). Now that the pandemic has forced many people to remain at home, on their phones, cases of revenge porn are at an all-time high (Web Foundation, 2020a).
Google has now provided a contact option for revenge porn victims to get in touch for their images to be removed (Love Is Respect, 2021), but many platforms are slow or unresponsive in terms of removing content (Suzor et al., 2018), despite their responsibility to do so. There is also the fact of the matter that there is still a market for this type of imagery – despite, or perhaps because of, the non-consensual way it was obtained (Goldstein, 2020).
In the example of the USA, revenge porn laws have been established in 46 states, however, sentencing for, and attitude toward perpetrators is very lax – for instance, a 19-year-old male who, despite admitting to making threats with, and distributing revenge porn in August 2020, won a Democratic primary seat and is the party’s candidate for the Kansas House of Representatives (Goldstein, 2020).
In her 2018 address, Šimonović emphasised that the communities most targeted by online violence include “women human rights defenders, together with other groups of women, such as women in politics, including parliamentarians, journalists, bloggers, young women, women belonging to ethnic minorities and indigenous women, LGBT women, women with disabilities and women from marginalised groups.” Again, these women’s rights to express themselves are being violated – as well as their fundamental rights to safety, and life (Kvinna till Kvinna, 2015).
In 2017, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that in the cases of murdered journalists of that year, 40% had been the target of online abuse before their deaths (Harrison, Posetti, & Waisbord, 2020). That same year, two renowned female journalists, India’s Gauri Lankesh, and Maltese Daphne Caruana Galizia, were murdered within six weeks of each other as the result of their work. Both had received online abuse and threats in the weeks before their murders.
In a joint survey conducted by UNESCO and the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ), 73% of female journalists reported that they had suffered online abuse in the course of their work, with 20% reporting that they had also been attacked offline in connection with online abuse (Harrison, Posetti, & Waisbord, 2020).
A further survey conducted by the ICFJ and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University revealed that 16% of female journalists found that online violence had rapidly escalated for them during the pandemic (Harrison, Posetti, & Waisbord, 2020). Considering that the UN has proclaimed the involvement of women and girls essential to response planning and decision-making as part of its COVID-19 Response Plan, these journalists provide a valid perspective and must be protected (United Nations, 2021).
The fifth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG5) to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls (United Nations, 2021) cannot be delivered without making the Internet a place where women can express themselves without fear of abuse or violations of their privacy.
The Due Diligence Submission (Aziz, 2018) calls for both state cooperation and self-regulation – namely through the installation of an independent entity to hear and decide upon cases of internet violence, as well as make recommendations for the survivor. In installing such a body, the bias, apathy, and ill-equipped capacity of national law enforcement to bring cases like that of Melville, Kampusch, and the South Korean case and hold those involved in the abuse of journalists accountable for their actions (Aziz, 2018). The entity must be accessible, responsive and serve the victims.
It must also wield the authority to order an internet service provider to divulge the information required to identify the perpetrator where circumstances warrant it, injunction, or injunction-like orders, and the removal or delinking of any material from search results (Aziz, 2018).
The pandemic has shown our reliance on the Internet to stay connected, educated, employed, and mobilised. However, as we draw ever closer to the deadline for the SDGs, more effort simply must be directed towards protecting women and their rights across all spheres – both online and offline.
 or the acts of one who ‘intentionally antagonises others online by posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive content According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
 or, the nonconsensual distribution of explicit or intimate pictures or video (Love Is Respect, 2021)
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