IGF 2017 WS #166
Combating Online Violence Against Politically-Active Women

Short Title
Combating Online Violence Against Politically-Active Women
Proposer's Name: Ms. Kirsten Zeiter

Proposer's Organization: National Democratic Institute (NDI)

Co-Proposer's Name: Ms. Amanda Domingues

Co-Proposer's Organization: National Democratic Institute (NDI)


Ms.,Amanda, Domingues, Civil Society, National Democratic Institute Ms.,Sandra,Pepera, Civil Society, National Democratic Institute

Additional Speakers

Seyi Akiwowo

Seyi is a locally elected politician in East London, making her the youngest black female Councillor in Newham. Seyi founded Glitch! UK an online abuse campaigning and training organisation.This was after facing horrendous racists and sexist online abuse and harassment when a video of her speech in the European Parliament went viral earlier this year. Seyi is a London School of Economics graduate, a Fellow at the Royal Society of the Arts and has had eight successful years working in the policy, politics and sustainable development sectors in the UK and abroad including Kuwait, Istanbul, UAE, Prague, Brussels, India and Bosnia.  Through Glitch!UK, Seyi lobbies social media companies to do more to stop online abuse and has developed a set of recommendations on how they can adequately and consistently address online violence against women and girls and online hate speech. She has developed personalised, interactive and informative training workshops on online violence against women and girls and online hate speech for young people and in 2018 will be training online tech companies too. 


Welcome and Introduction: Sandra Pepera (moderator) (10 minutes)

Panelist Interventions (35 minutes, 7 minutes for each speaker)
- David Kaye

- Seyi Akiwowo

- Nathan Mathias
- Nighat Dad

Moderator-Guided follow-up questions (15 minutes)
Audience Questions and Discussion (30 minutes)



Session Report (* deadline 26 October) - click on the ? symbol for instructions

- Session Title: IGF2017 WS166: Combating Online Violence Against Politically-Active Women               

- Date: 19 December 2017                

- Time:  15:00-16:30              

- Session Organizer: Kirsten Zeiter, Program Officer for Gender, Monitoring and Evaluation, National Democratic Institute               

- Chair/Moderator: Sandra Pepera, Director, Gender, Women and Democracy, National Democratic Institute      

- Rapporteur/Notetaker: Anna Kompanek, Director of Global Programs, Center for International Private Enterprise       

- List of Speakers and their institutional affiliations:                
Cllr Seyi Akiwowo, Elected politician in East London and Founder of Glitch!UK
David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression
Nighat Dad, Executive Director of Digital Rights Foundation, Pakistan
J. Nathan Mathias, Postdoc computational social scientist at Princeton University’s Department of Psychology, Sociology, and Center for Information Technology Policy

- Key Issues raised (1 sentence per issue):                 
- Strategies for understanding and combating online violence against politically-active women.

- The panel engaged experts from multiple sectors including digital activism, women's empowerment, technology, and international governance, to discuss methods for building international understanding of this issue and identifying strategies for combating it.

- If there were presentations during the session, please provide a 1-paragraph summary for each presentation:                 

In her introductory remarks, Ms. Pepera noted that people around the world appreciate democratic values, want to participate and be consulted. Women’s engagement in the democratic process changes the nature of political discourse, improves policy decisions, and makes peace more sustainable. While women have made significant strides in many fields, they are still facing barriers that prevent them from entering politics. Violence is one of those barriers, including online violence. It undermines democracy in particular when it affects politically-active women broadly defined: not just women elected into office but also activists, voters, and party candidates. Men also face violence in politics but it is of a different nature. Violence that women face is more likely to be sexualized and drives women – especially young women – away from the political sphere. It is a backlash against their participation. What happens online is not new but has been given new and more toxic life. Internet accelerated, amplified, and made more permanent the impact of violence, while providing many perpetrators with anonymity.

Ms. Akiwowo gave a poignant example of her personal experience with online abuse after her speech about the refugee crisis went viral. She asked a crucial question: when does freedom of speech become hate speech? Online abuse is not robust debate, it is about the intentional harassment of women to make them to leave the internet and social media, or modify their behavior by self-censorship. It affects especially women of color. Diane Abbott, UK’s first black woman MP, tops the list of MPs with the largest amount of abusive tweets received. There is an increasing number of attempts to silence women in various online groups through harassment, abuse, body shaming, etc. This is a new challenge to democracy, digital inclusion, and progress toward gender equality. Ms. Akiwowo founded Glitch!UK to reduce online violence against women and online hate speech through advocacy, campaigning, and education. Glitch!UK developed a set of recommendations for social media platforms and users: 1) raise awareness of online abuse; 2) increase the understanding of our rights online; 3) lobby for transparency and better self-regulation for social media companies; 4) report online harassment to law enforcement; 5) train young people to be better online citizens, educate women in politics how to navigate the risks of abuse, and help tech companies learn from past mistakes and glitches.

Mr. Kaye emphasized that online abuse is not an easy problem to solve. It requires greater responsibility of private actors, short of outright censorship and prohibitions. Online abuse against women is different than other forms of abuse against men or minorities: this abuse is often sexualized and designed to not only push one particular woman offline but the whole community. Moreover, a disconnect exists between how offline and online harassment is treated by law enforcement. It is critical to train law enforcement to recognize that online abuse constitutes real harm and there should not be a distinction. To combat online violence, we also need clarity of legal norms – both laws passed by governments and platform norms shaping online expression. Victims should understand what their rights are on- and offline. If the rules are not clear, it leaves significant discretion to platforms and law enforcement to take down material out of context (e.g., resources on sexual health or critique of abuse). Platforms should also provide autonomy to individual users to block abusers and manage one’s online space. Mr. Kaye cautioned against the dangers of censorship: fuzzy lines are the hardest cases. We must be careful that the steps we take are not designed to censor otherwise legitimate speech.

Ms. Dad stressed the importance of context for framing the issue of online violence. Her country, Pakistan, is a patriarchal, conservative society. Violence against women is an issue but most people do not discuss it. Her organization, Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), started working with women’s rights groups to make them realize that harassment online is a form of violence. DRF advanced evidence-based research for more effective advocacy by working on reports domestically and internationally. They found champions in the Parliament and helped them understand why online violence is a matter of free speech. Ms. Dad – herself a victim of online abuse – also started a cyber harassment helpline in December 2016 when she could no longer handle alone the volume of incoming complaints. She has received more than 1,500 complaints so far, and more than 300 were referred to law enforcement. The helpline also assists in generating data and recommendations for law enforcement and internet companies. There is no one solution but at least now Pakistani women have a safe space to speak out.

Mr. Mathias approached the subject from the perspective of empirical inquiry: how do we know that our efforts to protect people online actually work? As it turns out, sometimes they may even have the opposite effect. He cited the example of Instagram, which in 2012 altered its search engine to make materials promoting self-harm harder to find. Four years later, researchers at Georgia Tech determined that publishes who evaded Instagram’s changes experienced increased engagement and participation. Instagram’s best efforts may have increased the very thing the company was trying to shelter its users from. We are at the early stages of understanding the outcomes of such policies. Platforms and anyone working on this issue have a responsibility to evaluate their efforts to protect people and prevent violence, precisely because they may have outputs that are different from what they expected.

Research must also be independent from companies and governments who carry out these measures in order to be reliable. To that end, Mr. Mathias is building avenues for advocates and behavioral scientists to do their own research, work together, and grow a shared pool of findings. For instance, a collaboration with Women, Action, and the Media collected reports of online harassment from women in predominantly English-speaking countries and analyzed Twitter’s reactions to gain a sense of decisions made by the platform. Another example involved collaboration with the subscriber community on Reddit. This study found that simply making the platform rules visible can reduce harassment from first-time participants by 7.5 percentage points, or ca. 1,800 cases per month. Mr. Matthias’s dissertation is now being incubated by Global Voices as the CivilServant project, software infrastructure that supports online communities to run their own experiments on the effects of moderation practices. We need to test our assumptions and discover over time what makes a difference.

- Please describe the Discussions that took place during the workshop session (3 paragraphs):                

During the discussion, panelists made additional points. Mr. Kaye expressed concern that some rules, especially coming out of Europe, reinforce the dominance of large companies in the internet search space because it is very expensive to meet the moderation rules and other regulatory requirements they are seeking to impose. As a result, there are few new entrants and few alternatives for people to express themselves online and have a large audience other than on the existing big platforms. This phenomenon, combined with little diversity in the engineering space, reinforces established power structures. Encouragingly, though, he pointed to the work done by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) to integrate human rights standards into engineering choices. Training and education matter.

Ms. Pepera and Ms. Akiwowo highlighted that, while in general public figures may be expected to accept more criticism than private citizens, women politicians suffer disproportionally more abuse. Jo Cox, a female British MP, was murdered by a politically motivated attacker, and the crime was made easier because the internet made it easy to locate her. Women abused online are also more vulnerable to a physical attack. This is a dangerous trend. Law enforcement considers online harassment jurisdictional-free zone but this abuse often spills into the physical world. Ms. Dad affirmed that point by providing an example from Pakistan where a woman politician who blamed a party leader for sexual harassment faced online threats and then reported being stalked. Online abuse, while covered by most cybercrime laws, receives less attention than other crimes such as fraud. We must make the case about the offline effects with solid evidence.

On a more optimistic note, Mr. Matthias remarked that we should not underestimate the number of people who are already being active bystanders online. Data and Society Research Institute in a national study found that 46% of internet users have taken action to support the person who they see facing harassment or engage directly with the person they saw harassing. Many people dedicate substantial energy to this work: Facebook group administrators, Reddit moderators, etc.

- Please describe any Participant suggestions regarding the way forward/ potential next steps /key takeaways (3 paragraphs):    

In terms of next steps and remaining challenges, Ms. Akiwowo said that while the UK political parties recognized online violence as a form of violence, it may take a high-profile case before the international community wakes up. Ms. Pepera and Ms. Dad added that many cases of abuse go unreported, many women are afraid to come forward. When reporting online abuse, women face a reporting system dominated by white males. Therefore, we must be strategic about seeking champions and leverage the political process if we hope to speed up the broader understanding of online violence and its costs.

Mr. Matthias emphasized that it is dangerous to take research on combatting online violence from one context and uncritically apply it elsewhere. If there is anything universal to be found on what works, we need to look at the particulars in the context where people face risks. One major challenge is resources – most research is done by the internet companies themselves and largely remains a trade secret.

In closing, Ms. Pepera called for extending the Istanbul Convention on violence against women more globally for national-level campaigns. She also announced that NDI next year will present to the UN a report about combatting violence against women in politics based on #NotTheCost campaign aimed to ensure that women can be politically active without experiencing discrimination, harassment, or assault. She also referenced a joint initiative of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), and the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) on the Open Internet Principles meant to create a framework for internet openness for democracy advocates. The three organizations are developing A Democratic Framework to Interpret Open Internet Principles to help activists working for democracy in an internet age and connect them in global peer networks to exchange best practices.

Gender Reporting

- Estimate the overall number of the participants present at the session: 70
- Estimate the overall number of women present at the session: 45
- To what extent did the session discuss gender equality and/or women’s empowerment? The session was focused entirely on an issue pertaining directly to gender equality and women’s empowerment.
- If the session addressed issues related to gender equality and/or women’s empowerment, please provide a brief summary of the discussion. Please see above.