In recent decades, technologies have transformed self-expression, interactions and relationships and provided access to social, private, non-government and government sectors. Devices and social media platforms (like Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp) enable instant communication to be sent to recipients near and far. Geolocation enables people and places to be found, remotely. Temporal and geographic boundaries have been tested and overcome.
There is a raft of benefits to these shifts as we are all too aware in the current climate. Technologies can facilitate connection and participation. However, these same channels provide new opportunities to enact violence. Like ‘offline’ harms, ‘online’ harms are gendered. Women are disproportionately targets of technology-facilitated violence (as recent reports about Twitter by Amnesty International have shown). There are vulnerabilities and higher rates of victimisation in particular cohorts, including Black women, Indigenous women, women of colour and women with disabilities. Individuals also report attacks on their gender identity, sexuality and religion just as we see in ‘real-world’ hate crimes.
There are unique features to technology-facilitated violence such as its spacelessness. We can be exposed to harm anywhere and any time we access devices or digital profiles. Possibly, the ease, absence of face-to-face contact and anonymity afforded by technology (hiding information about perpetrators) not only facilitates but drives and amplifies aggression.
Technologies are not neutral, because their function and use is shaped by their makers and moderators. Some commentators have referred to the tech industry as a ‘brotopia’. Women are under-represented in engineering and programming fields and in higher-level (decision-making) roles in many organisations. Senior roles are typically filled by white, English-speaking, middle-class men. Diversity at the most influential companies (like Facebook and Google) is minimal. Women constitute around 30 per cent of the technical workforce and non-Anglo, culturally and linguistically diverse people are under-represented. Indigenous men and women constitute less than 1 to 2 per cent of all employees.
Given who does and does not feature in the workforce, it is unsurprising that inequalities and systematic biases are embedded in the internet, information communication technologies, databases and search engines. Digital media and devices do not necessarily seek to harm particular groups, but developers often overlook the needs of and impacts on those most likely to be harmed. As technology scholar dana boyd explains, ‘[w]e didn’t architect for prejudice, but we didn’t design systems to combat it either’.
The United Nations reports that technology-facilitated violence against women is ‘increasingly common’. Some acts may be viewed as typical and normalised because they are commonplace and frequent, such as isolated name-calling, verbal abuse or sexual harassment by an anonymous, pseudo-anonymous or known person’s social media profile. Other acts like image-based sexual abuse and technology-facilitated stalking are more easily problematised or criminalised. It is important to recognise that all digital intrusions have the potential to affect a woman’s wellbeing, sense of safety and ability to exercise rights and freedoms. Additionally, technologies change as do harmful behaviours, so while we identify examples of technology-facilitated violence below, this is by no means a complete or unchanging list.
Harassment and threats of sexual, physical or fatal violence and doxing (the release of personal and identifying information) can be performed by unknown persons, sometimes networks of people (like in Gamergate). Women might also be subjected to digital voyeurism – like upskirting and downblousing – which involves surreptitiously viewing, photographing or filming up a woman’s skirt or trousers or down her shirt.
Perpetrators of technology-facilitated violence may also be known to their targets and use technology to engage in violence both online and offline. Recent scholarship and media investigations have highlighted how dating app Tinder, for example, has been used by perpetrators of sexual violence. Technology is also a tool of domestic violence abusers enacting coercive and controlling behaviour. Digital media and devices might enable economic, sexual, psychological or emotional abuse and in-person stalking. Smartphones, tablets, computers, GPS trackers, spyware and the Internet of Things can also be used to evoke fear, harass, defame and threaten, and monitor activities, movements and communications.
Technologies can harm, but have also been harnessed by women and girls to address and combat both offline and online violence. These practices are varied, but they include naming and shaming perpetrators of sexual violence, online harassment and/or misogyny on social media. On popular Instagram accounts like Bye Felipe, for instance, users share screenshots of misogynistic comments by men on popular dating sites. The site becomes a place to report, mock and contest these sentiments.
Hashtag activism has also risen in prominence in recent years. It involves users sharing personal testimonies of violence and harassment underneath strategic hashtags to demonstrate wider patterns of gender-based violence and centre victim/survivor voices. Campaigns have been united through the use of popular hashtags like #MeToo, #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft, where women victims and survivors have shared their personal experiences of sexual, domestic and family violence and challenged myths about violence and victim-blaming.
Both hashtag activism and naming and shaming can collate experiences of violence, harassment and misogyny across geographical boundaries, building communities of practice and critiquing responses to violence. While hashtag activism has been described as lazy and casual, research on women’s participation (particularly that which relies on personal testimony) demonstrates that these strategies require great emotional investment and personal and political risk. It has also been suggested that they can contribute positively to challenging public understanding of the scope and nature of gender-based violence.
Nonetheless, some question whether these strategies are transformative or inclusive. There are questions about whose voices are featured and silenced in forms of digital resistance. Recent scholarship on the #MeToo movement has examined the ways this hashtag activism centred cis-gendered white middle class feminist voices and experiences. Additionally, the naming and shaming practices have been critiqued because of their potential to place the responsibility for addressing violence/harassment and/or misogyny on women.
Ultimately, technology can facilitate violence, but it can also be used to combat violence. There is potential in using technology to respond to gendered violence, and we see this with the pioneering work of advocates providing digital services and apps and using technology to disseminate education and awareness campaigns, call for social and law reform, regulate violence and challenge victim-blaming. However, just as we are mindful of the ways in which social and technological spaces and conditions shape violence, we should be cautious of the ways they affect and constrain the digital resistance and responses.
Bridget Harris is a Senior Research Fellow in Justice at Queensland University of Technology. She works in the fields of violence against women; technology-facilitated domestic violence/advocacy/justice; and spatiality.
Laura Vitis is a Lecturer in Justice at Queensland University of Technology. She works in the fields of technology and violence against women, informal justice and cultural criminology.
Bridget Harris and Laura Vitis are authors of ‘Digital intrusions: technology, spatiality and violence against women‘ in the special issue of the Journal of Gender-Based Violence, ‘Space, place and GBV‘, guest edited by Hannah J. Bows and Bianca Fileborn.
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