This March, nations of the world joined together to launch the “Global Partnership for Action on Gender-Based Online Harassment and Abuse,” including the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Denmark, Sweden, and the Republic of Korea, to work together to address technology-facilitated gender-based violence. The initiative, a commitment made in the Year of Action of the Summit for Democracy, resonates with the approach and principles that have underpinned NDI's work in this area, and has caught the attention of key technology companies.
The Global Partnership is a seminal and robust government response to something we’ve known for years: online violence against women is a threat to democracy.
For women in politics and public life, being abused, harassed and attacked online for having an opinion and acting on it, is such a universal experience that none have stepped forward to claim an abuse-free digital experience. [Anecdotally, we don’t know of a single woman in politics who has not faced gender-based attacks online.]
Embarrassing or explicit videos and other personal information, whether real or faked, are shared with their colleagues, friends and the broader public. If women do make it to prominent roles or challenge vested commercial interests, they may receive threats online which become a gateway to losing their lives in the physical world. Globally, young women are less likely to run for office because of how established women in politics are targeted and demeaned online. So-called strong men step on these women, and then step up to the podium to take control. It's misogyny by design. We have all the facts and the tech companies have all the evidence we need that tell us it is systemic and persistent. And, it's increasingly being acknowledged by everyone that silencing women and girls online is an impediment to democracy but also to resilience and growth.
The Global Partnership is a major step forward that has the potential to reshape the way women, and all people, engage online; and NDI is happy to support these efforts. However, it is not something that governments can do alone. As Jennifer Klein, Director and Chair of the White House Gender Policy Council said during the launch event for the Global Partnership, “Online harassment and abuse is a shared challenge [for] the full and equal participation of women and girls.” It is a shared challenge that both governments and technology platforms must address.
The late Secretary Madeleine Albright made ending violence against women one of her central objectives throughout her life. In the past year, she described the online violence women experience as a “solvable problem.” Taking her cue, we have identified interventions that both the Global Partnership and technology platforms can make to achieve sustainable change:
- Actively engage political women from around the world in creating solutions. While the importance of six key national governments as the founders of the Global Partnership certainly cannot be overstated, it lacks representation from much of the rest of the world, a fact acknowledged by the governments participating in the launch. One reason for this is because some governments simply have not realized the challenge – or don’t want to – but women in these countries certainly have. As the Global Partnership establishes its agenda, they should engage women in politics from throughout the world to participate in setting the agenda and creating accountability for technology companies.
- Create solutions for all users. The digital space is so toxic that platforms and governments create artificial divisions among the myriad challenges and how to tackle them. Attacks against a prominent politician in the United States get more attention from platforms than those of activists in other countries. The elections of highly populated, higher-income countries receive more attention and focus from platforms than those of countries with smaller, emerging economies. Similarly, national elections are granted more resources and support from platforms than sub-national elections. This fails to achieve the holistic approach to the challenge that is needed. All people have the right to free expression and full participation in public discourse. By centering the objective around supporting the needs of all users, we can build systems that address the needs of all communities globally.
- The solutions lie with technology companies and governments, not women. Many technology companies have worked to create tools to help political women in particular navigate these toxic waters. Meta recently turned on tools to let women hide harmful comments on their posts. Twitter offers training to female candidates in Latin America to help them protect themselves. Jigsaw created an anti-harassment tool. All are great steps, but they still require women to know about them and use them. These remedies still require women – and sometimes their staff – to endure the trauma of having to view each post, the mental strain of having to analyze each attack (is it mean, or is it harmful…click the box), and the extra time to report each incident. All to have these reports go unanswered because no content moderator in California understands the political context in Tunisia or speaks the language(s). This is a technology challenge, but one that companies should expect and accept with their decision to scale globally.
- The absence of offline harm does not equal “safe.” The genocide in Myanmar taught technology companies an important lesson: being blamed for offline violence is not good for business. The quick action of companies after January 6 in the United States and after the attack by Russia in Ukraine demonstrated that reputational risk still drives C-suite decisions. The same goes for women. Extensive evidence suggests that just because a woman is not physically attacked does not mean harm has not been done. Early steps indicate that some governments agree, with Sweden leading the way in the first conviction for “online rape.” It is imperative that the measure of success in the technology sector changes from the absence of harm to one of proactive accountability for a safe space for free expression.
- Accountability from technology companies is the biggest need. This toxicity may be a shock but it's not a surprise. Now women need automated, responsive, contextually-relevant, and gender-sensitive solutions if the internet is to live up to its promise of being "for all." For example, a company's human rights assessments could specifically focus on gender. Transparency reports that honestly share internal data could tell the public how bad it really is. In the same way that key words and phrases around terrorism are shared to develop smarter AI, multi-lingual repositories of hateful words could be created and shared among trusted actors. AI. Support for women could be more direct and immediate with a dedicated help desk or a redirect to a hotline. Taking it further would be to fund angel hackers to counter doxing and brigading attacks, or support from reputational defense firms. The fact is that many solutions are out there, and what is lacking is the commercial will of the entire tech industry to put principle before extraordinary profit.
We are at a tipping point for democracy as the toxicity of the digital space threatens its fundamentals: access to information and freedom of expression. For democracy, online toxicity is literally life-threatening. The good news is that we can do big things. We’ve seen the world – including the tech companies – change in a matter of days to address the invasion of Ukraine. As ending online violence against women is tech's solvable problem we should heed Secretary Albright's final message to all of us: it is time to “buckle our boots…and march.”
Author: Moira Whelan, Director for Democracy and Technology at NDI
NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms and values to secure a better quality of life for all. NDI envisions a world where democracy and freedom prevail, with dignity for all.