In societies worldwide, women experience significant obstacles when exercising their rights to participate in the shaping of their communities. Among these obstacles is online gender-based violence, the fact that women receive an overwhelming amount of abuse, harassment and hate speech on online platforms.
Particularly in countries where strong patriarchal structures persist, politicians, activists, journalists, or any woman who participates in the public discussion often suffer overpowering levels of online violence. Being the target of misogynistic hate and abuse should never be the cost of political participation. One of the many promises of democracy is that all citizens should be able to participate in the public sphere without suffering hatred because of their gender, sexuality, ethnicity or religion.
While there is increased policy attention to the issue, much more needs to be done to understand online gender-based violence and gauge the impact on women and their political participation. Ultimately, governments, social media platforms, and social organisations must formulate and issue policies addressing this gender and human rights problem.
Words Matter: Monitoring disinformation and hate speech in the Middle East and North Africa
Democracy Reporting International (DRI) has recently analysed the impact of online violence on women in the MENA region, where 60% of female internet users were exposed to violence in 2021, according to UN Women. Around 70 per cent of women activists and human rights defenders reported feelings of unsafety.
Through our WordsMatter project, we have monitored social media during key political processes in the MENA region to provide an understanding of hate speech and disinformation trends. Our first report examined the cases of four politically active women in the Arab region who were targets of devaluating, demeaning, hurtful or intimidating sexual or racial slurs. The attacks were generated by a few accounts and amplified by retweets and replies, using abusive hashtags to expand their reach. You can read a summary of the key takeaways here.
We talked to Layal Bou Moussa, an investigative journalist and political and social activist from Lebanon who has been the target of online gender-based violence. In an interview, she tells us that online hate speech is “a direct result of an absence of values” and that societies need more awareness to address this pressing problem.
Online violence against women in the MENA often goes underreported; therefore, the problem is overlooked. Survivors of online violence often do not report incidents due to fear of social or family judgement or victim-blaming, weak legal frameworks that do not protect them, and/or lack of knowledge about their rights. Governments and social media platforms fail to counteract, and civil society lacks the resources and knowledge to provide adequate support.
Here are our recommendations to address online violence against women in the MENA region and globally:
Voices that will not be silenced
Even if online platforms are still not safe for women, women on social media and internet communities demand an end to misogynistic violence in the digital space and, more broadly, in their societies. Recent years have seen numerous online campaigns where women share their abuse experiences and raise awareness of their struggles.
The internet can be a transformative, participatory space for women. But it needs to be made a safe space for all. This is the only way to guarantee equal political participation and achieve fully democratic societies.
“Contiune until the end, because your goal is more important than anything you are facing", says Layal Bou Moussa in a message to women who face obstacles when participating in public life.
DRI examines online gender-based violence in different regions of the world. Here’s more on what we are doing:
- We monitored the German 2021 elections, where we analysed toxicity and problematic speech and differentiated it by gender. Candidate of the Green party, Annalena Baerbock, was exposed to the most toxic comments on all platforms. The toxic attacks on Baerbock were mostly misogynous in nature. She was repeatedly attacked with derogatory and sexualised insults, including gender-specific language accusing her of incompetence. See more in our elections report.
- Our meta-analysis also clearly showed a groundswell of misogynistic digital violence targeting female politicians during the German elections in 2021.
- We included gendered disinformation as one prevalent narrative in our bi-annual report on disinformation, often perpetuated by means of cheapfakes and deepfakes to discredit female politicians. Disinformation targeting women in politics has evolved into a global phenomenon with similar rhetorical patterns: depictions of incompetence and physical unfitness.
- In 2020, DRI published a report on the under-representation and gender-based harassment against women on social media. Access it here.
- In the 2020 parliamentary elections of Sri Lanka, we examined the disparities in Facebook posts regarding male and female candidates to see if women were underrepresented or framed in a gendered way. Access the report here.