Making violence visible

Making Violence Visible

Take Back the Tech!

Sara Baker, Association for Progressive Communications

With the rise of technology in our everyday lives, technology-related violence against women (tech-related VAW) has become an increasingly important issue for global women’s rights campaigners. Violence can take many forms, and technology communications can be a vehicle for all - including physical, sexual, psychological or economic violence. Take Back the Tech! use citizen-generated data, in the form of women’s self-submitted experiences, for a dynamic online map which charts the spread and range of this constantly changing phenomenon.

Take Back the Tech! is a collaborative campaign that encourages women and girls to use technology to counter violence against women. It was launched nearly a decade ago, by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) as part of their Women’s Rights Programme.

Take Back the Tech! leads global campaigns at the intersection of women's rights and technology by building the capacity of local partners to understand and document tech-related VAW in their communities, use ICT for change securely, build movements for advocacy and activism, and amplify women's voices on these issues.

In 2011, Take Back the Tech! adapted the free and open source software Ushahidi crowdsourcing tool to map tech-related VAW and added this to the global website. As of 10 November 2015, the global map holds 611 reports from 52 countries, and the Take Back the Tech! site includes individual country maps for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, DRC, Kenya, Macedonia, Mexico, Pakistan and the Philippines.

Although the problem of tech-related VAW has been getting increased attention in the media, at stakeholder meetings and among users in general, there remains little hard evidence about prevalence, experiences, harm and both abuser and victim/survivor strategies  [footnote]In this report, the use of ‘victim/survivor’ will be predominantly used to describe women who have experienced tech-related VAW. For a fuller explanation of the arguments involved, please see (p.12) [/footnote] . Take Back the Tech! has not had success in getting social media platforms to release the disaggregated data they collect on abuse reports, but we have worked with local partners to examine tech-related VAW in their countries through case studies and an analysis of legislation and policies. Still, more data is needed from more countries.  

Generating data that is visible to all

By crowdsourcing data and allowing anyone to browse reports or generate a list of reports based on specific categories, data on this issue is not held by any particular institution or authority. Rather, it is transparent and available to all. Critically, the map gives victims/survivors the opportunity to document their experience in a space where they can be certain it is useful for others. Cases are submitted by victims/survivors themselves, people working with them, activists and internet users who are aware of cases through their community or the media. Information collected includes case description, general location and age of victim/survivor, type of violation, harm faced, platform, abuser (someone known, the state, etc.) and the survivor’s strategies.

Since victims/survivors are often forced to tell their stories repeatedly in an attempt to access justice with little to no action taken on the part of authorities or intermediaries, the opportunity to make their experience visible (even if anonymously) through mapping can make them feel like someone is listening and taking action. In countries where activists are just beginning to work on this issue, the map is a useful tool and we work with local partners in several countries to ensure that advocates are mapping cases. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, for instance, our key partner successfully coordinated with a local women’s shelter so that they now add reports to the map.

Identifying trends through analysis of citizen-generated data

In 2014 APC commissioned an analysis of map data in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish recorded between 2012 to mid-2014. The analysis allowed us to understand the types of tech-related violence that women face most frequently, how such experiences affect them, what actions they are most likely to take and the quality of response by authorities and intermediaries. We were also able to identify gaps in the data and rethink our categories and questions to capture this additional information. Suggested changes included the addition of a “13-18” option in the age category and adding “death of victim” as an option in the harm-faced category, since several cases led to suicide or femicide.

The most typical situation is as follows: A woman aged 18-30 faces a violation on Facebook perpetrated by someone known to her and involving repeated emotional abuse, emotional blackmail, threats of violence. These threats may involve non-consensual sharing of private data or images. She experiences emotional harm but does not necessarily take action to avoid or stop the violation. If she does take action, she is more likely to go to the police rather than report to Facebook, though the police are unlikely to investigate.

According to the data, those who experience tech-related VAW generally fall into one of three categories: ICT user in an intimate relationship; professional with a public profile interested in public expression or exchange (e.g., writer, researcher, activist, artist); victim/survivor of physical assault. The majority of cases (nearly 40%) from the analysis period were perpetrated by someone known to the victim/survivor, followed by someone unknown (27%) and a group of people (15%).  

One third of cases (33%) resulted in emotional harm, followed by harm to reputation (19%) and invasion of privacy (18%). Physical harm was surprisingly high at 11%, confirming that violations do not remain online. Both “dating with the intention to trap” someone, and “sweet talking with the intention to trick someone” were identified as having a high frequency in French, Portuguese and Spanish reports, with abduction, death or suicide resulting in a number of cases. Other harms included sexual harm, limited mobility, loss of identity, loss of property and and censorship. Generally, service providers were not responsive, taking action on less than a third of cases. While some reported to authorities, only 41% of those were actually investigated, which suggests a lack of law enforcement understanding of tech-related VAW and/or of legislation and protocols enabling them to respond.

Technology changes rapidly, meaning that trends and platforms associated with tech-related VAW fluctuate also. As of 10 November, 28% of cases involved repeated harassment, 37% of victims/survivors experienced emotional harm and 41% of violations happened through social media platforms, with Facebook comprising nearly half of that figure. Notably, Facebook accounted for 60% of social media cases just a year ago, showing that perpetrators are perhaps increasingly using other platforms for abuse or women users are drifting away from the site. Another significant change over the course of the year is that reports of physical harm have grown to 12%, which may mean that tech-related VAW is becoming more dangerous.

Using crowdsourced data to bring about change

APC partners and Take Back the Tech! campaigners have used map data in international advocacy at meetings of the United Nations, as well as in national and local advocacy with governments, telecoms and law enforcement. In July 2014, Take Back the Tech! challenged social media companies to embrace women’s human rights in their policies, improve reporting mechanisms and engage with women’s rights activists in different countries. Our campaigners were able to pressure the companies via a combination of policy research, an infographic visually representing map data and case studies. The campaign had a positive response and we have since been able to speak to companies directly and connect them to other women’s rights organisations.

However, we have seen the biggest impact from a range of case studies developed from map submissions. Local partners in seven countries each selected three stories from their country map and conducted interviews with the survivors and other actors involved, such as law enforcement and telecoms. In Pakistan, media attention on these case studies led to Twitter asking our partner Bytes for All (B4A) to become an authorised reporter, allowing them to fast-track reports of Twitter violations; Pakistan’s Deputy Inspector General agreeing to inform B4A of tech-related VAW cases so the organisation’s staff can liaise between victims, police and corporations; and the country’s foremost women’s rights organisation making a commitment to include tech-related VAW in their advocacy.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, our partner One World Platform (OWPSEE), had been working for years to raise awareness of tech-related VAW, but changes were very slow. The media finally took up the call during Take Back the Tech!’s July 2014 campaign, which targeted the private sector. OWPSEE invited media representatives to a breakfast discussion called: “Is virtual real enough for you?” Bosnian newspapers began publishing stories on local cases, and OWPSEE staff see this as a significant achievement due to the impact that media has on influencing public opinion. OWPSEE developed new partnerships with civil society, including one of the strongest youth organisations in the country, which has since participated in Take Back the Tech! campaigns to raise awareness among the general population. Activists in this part of the world are seeing a change in how women are using the internet, with more speaking up and creatively using ICT tools such as videos, photos and graphics.

Documenting violence is vital

Although the map data is not wholly representative of tech-related VAW, it is a useful sample. Many women are reluctant to report this form of violence, have no resources to do so or lack education on what constitutes violence, especially when it comes through ICT. The more reports we get, the more representative the map becomes. Of course, false reports can be submitted, but all cases go through a moderator before the post appears on the map.

There has been discussion among our wide-ranging community about whether making violence visible perpetuates it. We have initiated campaigns around the theme of “I don’t forward violence” because disseminating images of violations, such as a video of a women being raped, is a further violation. Likewise, we often resist including images of violence on our global website because we want to counter such images with women taking action. However, documenting violence is vital. Women often suffer silently, especially when it comes to online harassment because the reality of such violence is minimised and demeaned. It is critical that people understand that psychological violence is violence and such behaviour aims to silence women. By making tech-related VAW visible on our map, we ensure that it does not remain hidden and that women’s voices are heard. Take Back the Tech! believes in the power of women’s stories, and our map is one more avenue for speaking up in an insecure world.