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OPINION: GBV at the click of a button: even online, misogyny is out of line

By Dr Eileen Carter

12 March 2023

Gender-based violence (GBV) is a growing concern in South Africa, and the rise of the internet and social media has only amplified the problem. During the state of the nation address in February this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa again called on individuals, institutions and leaders to end violence against women. Nevertheless, online spaces, which can be seen as empowering and liberating, are increasingly used to perpetuate harm against users and in particular women.

Online activity has opened new avenues for GBV, such as cyberstalking, cyberbullying and ha rassment.Deepfake technology that can seamlessly stitch women's faces onto a video or footage they never actually participated in. In fact, deepfake technology was initially developed in 2017 to transpose the faces of women actors into pornographic scenes without their consent. Since then, access to these tools has grown.

These forms of violence can severely affect the mental and emotional wellbeing of women and even put their safety at risk. Additionally, the anonymity provided by online spaces allows perpetrators to act with perceived impunity, making it difficult for victims to seek help and support.

This phenomenon has recently been confirmed by a snapshot survey conducted by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) when it asked women questions about online abuse. As a national institution established under our constitution, one of the SAHRC’s main functions is to investigate and report on human rights violations, and conduct researchto identify systemic abuse in different sectors. With this snapshot, it aimed to determine whether GBV occurred online and how this affected women’s experiences and behaviour on these platforms.

Forty women from legal, academic, political and journalistic backgrounds, which included judges and members of the executive council, were surveyed. More than half of the respondents were between the ages of 35-45. The results were in line with a 2022 study by Plan International regarding the experiences of women online, though representing only a targeted snapshot of local women.

The snapshot indicated the platforms most used by the respondents were WhatsApp and Facebook, followed by YouTube and Instagram. Discouragingly, more than 70% of respondents indicated they had been abused or harassed online. This includes cyberbullying, cyberstalking, online sexual harassment, threats and body shaming. The most unwanted conduct was reported to emanate from Facebook, followed by Twitter. Almost 95% of the respondents have seen other women being abused online.

One of the key findings from the respondents was that the abuse they experienced and witnessed altered the way they interacted and conducted themselves on digital platforms. Respondents indicated they had learnt to be wary online, to refrain from responding to bullies and decrease their use of social media. This means the voices of many women online may sometimes be softer, less authentic and perhaps even muted out of fear of cyberattacks.

The internet and social media appear to be dominated by male voices, with women often being relegated to the sidelines.

This snapshot is important because it alerts us again that bullying and abuse may steadily turn social media platforms into echo chambers for those shouting the loudest. Addressing GBV online is therefore crucial to ensuring women’s voices are heard and represented in digital spaces. The internet and social media now appears to be dominated by male voices, with women often being relegated to the sidelines. For example, DataPortal reports that in line with this assumption, 63% of Twitter users are male. This can lead to the creation of platforms where certain perspectives and opinions are amplified, while those of women are marginalised.

It is crucial that all relevant stakeholders take active steps to prevent GBV online and protect the rights of women in digital spaces. This can be achieved by implementing measures such as online harassment reporting mechanisms, training law enforcement officials to handle online abuse cases and working with technology companies to develop tools to tackle online GBV. This can also be accomplished through reporting concerns to the SAHRC.

Significantly, to strengthen and reinforce an underscoring of human rights, the SAHRC has developed a Social Media Charter as an important step towards promoting the responsible use of social media platforms in South Africa. This charter, which will be launched in Gqeberha on March 14 as part of a broader theme “A call to Action: Strengthening Human Rights in the Age of Social Media”, was a response to growing concerns about the spread of hate speech and other forms of online abuse, and aims to guide users on how to assess and report such abuses effectively. The SAHRC is confident it can serve as a guide to parents, teachers and children on how to engage and educate about the social media space. It is also hoped that corporates will use this charter in developing their social media policies in the workplace. The charter is being launched as part of the Social Harmony National Effort or SHiNE, which is aimed at fostering social harmony through a culture of positive dialogue.

As digital technologies advance at a rapid pace, it is crucial that we recognise the potential for human rights abuses that come with these developments. With the increasing use of technology in all aspects of our lives, including communication, education employment and health care,we must be aware of how these technologies are used to violate fundamental human rights such as dignity, equality, privacy, freedom of speech as well as safety and security of person. So it is imperative that we are proactive in identifying and addressing these issues as they arise. In addition, it is vital that we remain willing to change course and adapt our policies and habits to ensure the preservation of social cohesion and respect for human rights. Failure to recognise and address the potential for human rights abuses in the digital age could have serious and far-reaching consequences for our society and our individual rights and freedoms, specifically for marginalised and vulnerable groups such as women.

By ensuring women have a voice in digital spaces, we can promote diversity and inclusivity and prevent the perpetuation of harmful attitudes and behaviours in the form of tailored gendered human rights abuses.

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