When we take into account the information above, we get to grasp how social media platforms enable individuals to deploy both social and economic power. Yet on the other hand, they also function as political tools by giving voice to social movements, ensuring that all political conflicts are heard and amplified.
In Colombia, these tools represent a safe space for women to get together and raise their voices to gain support towards gender equality in politics, a space historically led by men even when women represent more than half of the world’s population. Nowadays, only 24.3% of parliamentary positions in the world are occupied by women. According to the World Economic Forum, at this rate it will take us about a century to achieve equal gender participation in politics.
Nevertheless, despite the positive qualities – as being a tool to share and raise our voices, social media has also become a virtual place where we attack each other. On a daily basis, we come across messages looking to delegitimize social groups, spread fake rumors regardless of the political spectrum and spread violent call to actions against others.
This is a reality of the digital world. The situation is even more complicated if we stop and think about the strategies used against women as the targets of cyberattacks. Hate speech, cyberbullying, threats, intimidations, and the well-known “stalking” strategies are just a few ways used to attack women on the internet. Some may say “men are also victims of these types of aggressions.” This may be true, but men are typically attacked based on their ideas, while women are often attacked based on their physical attributes.
For example, a recent analysis in the 2020 US Congress elections quoted by Cécile Guerin and Eisha Maharasingam-Shah showed that “female candidates are significantly more likely to become victims of cyber abuse than their male counterpart. On Facebook, democrat women candidates receive ten times more hate comments than democrat male candidates” and they were ranged from the way they dress to sexual violence threats. Similar situations have happened in India, The United Kingdom, Ukraine and Zimbabwe. In addition, this type of hate speech doesn’t only affect women but ethnic minorities and other groups that have been historically marginalized.
According to Lucina di Meco, an expert in gender and disinformation intersection, women who are journalists and activists with interests in politics are often targets of online threats, harassment and explicit sexual mockery to delegitimize them and ultimately, to dissuade them from being politically active. UN Women Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka maintains that this type of virtual actions seek to control and exercise some kind of power over women - to keep them quiet and out of the conversations that matter.
Although this isn’t new, hate speech is nowadays broadcasted in the news and there are only a few specific cases where legal action has taken place. For example, in Colombia there are no regulations in place for violence in virtual spaces against women.
While social media platforms have sought ways to counteract these situations, a more forceful stance is needed to stop hate speech and harassment towards women and marginalized groups. However, social platforms are not the only ones accountable. For real change, it will require the active participation of the authorities so that these behaviors are not normalized. Since this is a violation on human rights, structural changes are needed because violence against women is not born in digital spaces but is a historical situation of the offline world.
Elizabeth Peña Jáuregui, a specialist in telecommunications, broadcasting, regulation, policies, and gender inclusion, proposes a strategy to eradicate gender violence. This strategy considers at least three principles:
To establish measurements to raise public awareness in relation to violence against women and girls. As well, to establish and provide information on services and legal protection to stop violations and to prevent their recurrence.
To promote digital literacy regarding the use of Internet without discrimination based on sex or gender. As well as promoting gender equality at all levels of education, including online education from early childhood. Training needs to be provided to magistrates, lawyers, police officers and other law enforcement officials to ensure their ability to investigate and prosecute perpetrators.
To protect victims from online abuse by adopting effective measures, providing the necessary resources for the removal of content, providing remedies and appropriate legal assistance, and allowing for protection orders.
Our invitation, then, is to reflect about the multiple ways in which women are the subject of internet aggressions and how we can support them in the fight against it. Let’s remember that a real democracy can only exist with the participation and voice of all individuals, no matter the gender.
Written by: Manuela González, Antioquia, and Eje Cafetero Region Coordinator, CIVIX Colombia
Background illustration: Photo by ThisIsEngineering from Pexels / Pexels license