Gender-based violence is a global phenomenon and a violation of the human rights of women, girls and other people negatively targeted because of their gender identity or gender expression. The harms can be physical, sexual or psychological.
As our online and offline lives become more integrated, gender-based violence and its impacts now overlap in both physical and digital spaces. Perpetrators of intimate partner violence, stalking and sexual harassment are now using digital tools, such as social media and GPS tracking, to cause harm alongside in-person violence. Digital tools have also opened the door to new forms of abuse, such as the non-consensual creation of sexual images through artificial intelligence, including deepfake videos.
The result of these new digitally enabled abusive behaviours is what’s known as online gender-based violence. This is not a stand-alone form of violence but a digitally enhanced form of existing violence. While recognizing that online gender-based violence is part of the continuum of gender-based violence, there are some factors that make this form of violence especially challenging to address.
First, since it occurs digitally, online gender-based violence can happen across geographic locations, with abusers being able to access their targets even when they’re not physically close to them.
Second, because our lives are so digitally integrated, it can be nearly impossible for those targeted by this abuse to escape online gender-based violence.
Additionally, many forms of online gender-based violence are not well understood, either by the wider public or the justice system. Online gender-based violence has been minimized and ignored because of the mistaken belief that online abuse is not as harmful as abuse that happens in the physical world.
To combat this misconception, it’s vital to understand the many forms that online gender-based violence takes, who the victims are and what harms arise as a result of it.
One of the more commonly known forms of gender-based violence is online harassment. Harassment itself can occur online or offline and it can be perpetrated by a single person or a group of individuals. Harassment in violent intimate partner relationships has been amplified with new technologies. An abusive partner can not only treat their partner cruelly in digital spaces, but they can also monitor their partner’s behaviour with technology in order to control them.
Common apps like Find My iPhone can be used to track their partner’s location, or more complex tracking technology such as stalkerware can be used to monitor all aspects of their partner’s phones. This information can be used to stalk them, invade their privacy and makes them feel as though they are always being watched.
Other people face online gender-based harassment in the form of sexist and threatening attacks by other internet users. One of the most disturbing forms of this harassment is what is known as networked harassment. Online messaging boards and social media sites have created new spaces for people to gather to organize harassment campaigns against individuals or specific groups of people. For example, sexist and misogynistic messaging boards have led to large- scale harassment campaigns against female gamers, transgender people and feminist advocates.
Women, girls and LGBTQ+ people are at particular risk of being targeted by online gender-based violence. Intersectionality — the interconnected nature of a person’s various social locations — also plays a significant role in who is targeted by online gender-based violence. Black, Indigenous, people of colour, disabled people and LGBTQ+ people face statistically higher levels of online harassment and abuse.
Additionally, women and girls in leadership positions, such as politicians, human rights defenders and journalists, are specifically targeted online due to their leadership positions.
The impacts and harms of online gender-based violence are felt both on the individual and the systemic level. Individually, people who encounter this kind of online abuse experience psychological harms, fears for their physical safety, worry about getting attacked online for expressing themselves freely, and face reputational, professional and economic consequences.
On a broader and systemic level, this violence reinforces inequality and maintains discriminatory norms that limit women, transgender and non-binary people from realizing their potential and their human rights.
There is a critical need for more representation of equality-seeking groups and the issues that are important to them in politics, journalism and other positions of power, but these voices are stifled when these leaders experience harassment online.
Either individually or systemically, one of the most harmful effects of online gender-based violence is its silencing effect.
As the rates of online gender-based violence continue to grow, there is a need to invest both time and resources into finding solutions to ending this violence. This requires a multi-faceted approach with governments, civil society organizations and technology companies working to address these issues.
Social media companies need to be more responsive to the needs of people experiencing violence and they need to provide meaningful support for those abused on their platforms.
Front-line anti-violence organizations require increased resources and supports so that they can provide adequate intervention strategies.
Governments should ensure there are practical and accessible avenues for those targeted by online gender-based violence to get the supports they need and to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions. Ultimately, all people globally have a role to play.