The increase in online violence against women is one of the worst consequences of our new onlife routine, but we can fight it. All it takes is a different culture, one of global inclusion and social sustainability.

Over the last century, mankind has achieved unprecedented development. In technology, sciences and medicine, the advancement was characterised by speed and penetration, exponentially elevating human knowledge and capabilities. If we consider that the computers that guided the first moon landing had the same computational capacity of a modern calculator, we can perceive how extraordinary this accelerated progress was.

Because of this, witnessing phenomena of cultural backwardness hurts even more in the 21st century. It feels as though there are two worlds, a dual nature to mankind: one able to reach exceptional goal and one capable of terrible injustices. Such a polarisation is as surprising as it is dangerous.

Interestingly, this does not simply relate to contexts and regions where violence and discrimination are a day-to-day reality. Even in the areas of the world that are more advanced, data on such phenomena is just as appalling. One of the most relevant of such issues is gender violence, defined by the UNHCR as ‘harmful acts directed at an individual based on their gender. It is rooted in gender inequality, the abuse of power and harmful norms. Gender-based violence (GBV) is a serious violation of human rights’. Gender violence is not only physical, but also social, psychological, cultural. The European institute for Gender Equality accurately describes its forms and numbers, bringing to light aspects of the phenomena that are generally underestimated or ignored.

Violence against women: something to fight with culture

One of the most recognisable instances of gender violence is violence against women. At times, global and local efforts towards inclusion and respect of women are reduced to ephemeral conclusions and symbolic actions of pinkwashing. That is, because campaigns to raise awareness are often sporadic and superficial. Instead, violence against women should be fought through culture. It is necessary to construct a new culture in the more academic sense of the word. According to the theory of Constructivism, culture is like a conceptual map that we apply daily to give sense to things and events around us. Members of the same culture have similar conceptual maps and, therefore, define and interpret the objects of reality in a similar way. Their maps are similar because they are constructed through social interaction that happens among them. Simply put, it is the individuals that create culture, constructing specific interpretations of reality through conversation and continuous discussion. By changing the way we think or we talk about a certain phenomenon, we change its significance.

We change culture.

Online violence against women was propelled by an onlife context

Two years have passed since the arrival of the pandemic. Life as before, however, feels much more distant than that. Swallowed up by change, altered by unexpected events and stained by new concerns, our routine is at this point hardly recognisable. In some cases, we reacted with that brilliance that is often triggered when humanity is faced with challenges. In just a few months, technological development conquered objectives at unimaginable speed, accompanying the digital transformation of our lives, innovation after innovation. Similarly remarkable was the advancement of medicine, where the response to the sanitary threat distinguished itself from past examples in terms of rapidity and pervasiveness, backed up by global effort and dedicated minds.

At the level of our social lives, we searched for the meaning of such new reality in the most diverse ways. Once physical contact was prevented, we reached out online: containment measures and quarantine were just two of the several factors that propelled a dramatic increase in use of the various social platforms.

Such digital spaces became standpoints that offered an alternative to physical contact, dialogue and discussion necessary to give a new meaning to the world. Other experiences such as smartworking, online events and other cultural tendencies that were propagated through hashtags further contributed to the blurring of the line between online and offline, pushing towards an increasingly interconnected reality.

Or, as Luciano Floridi would define it, increasingly onlife.

Post-pandemic intensification of online violence against women and how to cure it

It is in such onlife routine, then, that the post-pandemic culture constructed itself, through the sensemaking processes encouraged by such ambiguous spaces and the trends that arose from them. A global re-interpretation of the meaning of human life. One of the fastest cultural re-negotiations ever undertaken by mankind.

As much as it is an extremely interesting and relevant cultural phenomenon, some of the tendencies that emerged have nothing positive. Rather, they seem a symptom of regression, halfway between narrow mindedness and a loss of values of the modern global society. One of the most pertinent, in this sense, is the alarming growth of online violence against women, a phenomenon which, according to data from UN Women, affects between 10% and 20% of female users, with a peak of 40% in countries such as Pakistan.

Violence against women: forms and effects

With the increase of internet use by 50%-70%, episodes of violence against women and girls online have also escalated. If, at first glance, the issue might seem reduced or superficially imperceptible, The Economist’s Intelligence Unit has identified 9 forms of violence. This tells a whole different story on the pervasiveness of the phenomenon.

  1. Misinformation and defamation: spreading rumours and slander to discredit or damage a woman’s character
  2. Cyber-harassment: repeated behaviour using textual or graphical content to frighten and undermine self-esteem.
  3. Hate speech: sexist or hateful language designed to attack or to humiliate.
  4. Impersonation: creating a false online presence in someone else’s name.
  5. Hacking and stalking: intercepting communications and data; targets women across social media accounts and through location tracking.
  6. Astroturfing: a coordinated effort to concurrently share damaging content across platforms.
  7. Video- and image-based abuse: sharing private images or video with malicious intent. Belonging to this category is also revenge porn, when graphical content of the victim engaging in sexual acts, acquired with or without consent, is shared online.
  8. Doxing: posting personal real-world information such as addresses to perpetuate violence.
  9. Violent threats: threats of physical harm through online channels.

If internet and digital platforms offer an enhanced freedom of speech and/or expression, they do so indiscriminately, with no regards to the nature of what is being said. Bad intentions, as well as nice words, often have the same opportunities to flourish in such environments and, at times, to go unnoticed. In fact, both UN Women and The Economist report their data with a footnote: not all victims are willing to speak up, and calculating with certainty the influence of the impalpable data on the overall evaluation of the phenomenon is simply impossible. In other words, the statistical description of the facts might be an extremely optimistic approximation of reality.

At times, speaking up is not an option

There are a series of factors that might discourage a victim from reporting the violence they suffered. Perhaps, they don’t have support or the necessary tools and infrastructure to receive help from outside. Additionally, they might know the perpetrator. Violence too, then, becomes onlife, fomented by worries about safety, in case the victim decided to take action on the matter.

In other cases, especially in nations where culture and cultural tendencies are still hinged on sexism and discrimination, violence is not even recognised. The fault is in that picture with slightly too revealing clothes, in that opinionated tweet, in their non-conformist sexuality, skin colour or non-binary gender identity. For the victim, the human rights violation is then perceived merely as a reminder that their existence in the world has something that is intrinsically wrong.

Good practices to inspire future action

There are a variety of projects and initiatives promoting the contribution of women towards a more inclusive technology, such as Take back the Tech and SheTransformsTech. At the same time, some social media platforms started supporting users against online harassment, like Instagram is doing through the platform Heartmob.

Attesting the centrality of women in the creation of a more sustainable society, both the environmental and social sense of the term, the Expo in Dubai has an entirely dedicated pavilion for women, made in collaboration with Cartier. The goal is to fight stereotypes and inspire future conversation towards the celebration of women and their contribution, priceless and often unspoken of. Through a multisensorial journey, the visitors are encouraged towards reinterpreting women’s role, relying on four cornerstones:

  • The acknowledgement and celebration of women’s impact on the world (of the past and the present).
  • The challenges that penalise women and their inclusion.
  • The initiatives that empower them as people as well as actors of tomorrow’s human advancement.
  • Inspiring the visitors towards a way of thinking  that might change wrong conceptions on women.

In Spindox, too, we have put ourselves to work so that the digital world and technology may become more inclusive environments for women. We have always done our outmost to encourage gender equality within our corporate context and specifically at our apical positions and management level. Through our blog, we inspire our internal and external publics towards a more conscious way of thinking about technology. Our goal is to reinterpret digital transformation in a more inclusive way, by examining discrimination issues on the area in an unusual, profound and diagonal fashion.

Moreover, we collaborate with important associations for inclusion such as Eufemia, which promotes projects of digital alphabetisation for women coming from difficult backgrounds. Their courses provide these women with the necessary tools and the adequate knowledge to autonomously move in the digital world, favouring their employability and inclusion in the information society.

Tearing down online violence against women: constructing a new culture

Let’s create a new culture to tear down online violence against women. Let’s do it with kind words, reciprocal support and positive encouragement. Of acceptance and mutual empathy. Let’s create the adequate infrastructure so that our women will feel protected and listened to, by taking after the already existing good examples explained above. Let’s teach our women so that they will be able to acknowledge when and how violence takes place. Let’s make them understand that speaking up is always, unequivocally better than remaining silent, better than withstanding. Let’s teach our children that you don’t need violence in order to be listened to, and that violence is not, nor will ever be, associated with personal gratification.

Let’s overcome the barriers that still obstruct gender equality and inclusion and demonstrate that we have finally reached excellence in all areas, especially that of human rights and freedom.