On 29th of November, the Department of Gender Equality of the Office of the Czech Government organised an international conference on gender-based cyber-violence, focusing mainly on sexist hate-speech and image-based sexual violence. The conference brought together representatives of academia, various European governments, GREVIO, the European Commission, the European Institute for Gender Equality, the private sector as well as the non-governmental organisations. With the goal to create a platform for sharing of best-practices, the conference was divided into three thematic sections: research, policy-making and prevention.
Gender based cyber-violence as a threat to democracy
The role of digital technology in both our public and private lives is constantly growing. Digitalisation became even more important after covid-19. The Internet provides a platform for women and other underrepresented groups to speak up. Those who have been silenced can now participate in the public life and see themselves represented. However, the internet has also become a tool of gender-based violence.
„Hateful expressions of everyday sexism, image-based sexual violence, and stalking are all part of a continuum of violence, which translates from the online to the offline world. The recent murder of two queer people by a far-right teer, radicalised on the internet, shows, how pertinent the issue is,“ stated the Government Commissioner for Human Rights Ms. Klára Šimáčková Laurenčíková in her opening speech at the conference Gender equality in the digital age: a task for Europe. Combating gender-based cyber-violence.
Recent research shows that 41% of women have experienced online harassment at least once in their lives, and a full half of these cases were of misogynistic or sexist significance. Women with health disabilities, members of the LGBTQ+ community and women who come from socially and culturally segregated minorities are the most vulnerable. Women in public office and female journalists are often targets of gender-based cyber-violence.
75% of female journalists have experienced threats, intimidation, insults, harassment, defamation or targeted violations of digital privacy in the online space. Topics related to gender, politics, human rights and the social policy area trigger hate speech the most. These attacks not only aim to attack the dignity of women in the public space, but also to discourage them from making public appearances altogether.
A European approach to combatting gender based cyber-violence?
Monika Hanych, an expert on new technologies and human rights, welcomed representatives of governmental and non-governmental organizations, Czech and foreign research institutes, experts and the wider public. She pointed out that the influence of the internet on our everyday lives is growing and with it the acuteness of solving the problem of cyber violence. The aim of the conference is to open a discussion on the fight against cyber violence, specifically targeting women and girls.
Klára Šimáčková Laurenčíková, the Czech Government Commissioner for Human Rights expressed her gratitude about the presence of key experts from various European countries to push the debate on preventing and addressing gender-based cyber violence further. The Commissioner also referred to the European Commission´s Proposal for a Directive on combating violence against women and domestic violence, which she considers to be an important initiative in this field. During its Presidency, the Czech Republic is working to facilitate the negotiation of this proposal.
Irena Moozová, the Director for Equality and Union Citizenship at the European Commission, provided the general context of the Directive Proposal. According to a 2020 survey, one in two women has experienced cyber violence in the online world. Ms Moozová spoke about the role of hackers, who often misuse personal data and share it without consent and for profit. The speaker went on to talk about cyber violence and its attacks on democratic principles. There is thus a pressure on the EU institutions and other institutions to act more actively on this issue. In the Directive Proposal, the European Commission aims to combat gender-based cyber violence on and off the internet in order to prevent such acts, protect victims and prosecute perpetrators. Lastly, Ms Moozová called upon the ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, which is the most comprehensive instrument in this area to date.
The last opening speech was given by Karel Dvořák, the Deputy Minister of Justice of the Czech Republic who stressed the need to address the issue of gender equality here and now. While the world is becoming more and more digitalised, on-line hate-speech and harassment are often overlooked by the authorities. A fifth of all Czech children spend five or more hours a day on the internet, which increases the likelihood that they will be exposed to cyber violence. Dvořák also pointed to the documentary film “Caught in the Net” which captured the phenomenon of sexualised cyber violence and its consequences for children.
Panel 1: What do we know about the prevalence, effects and consequences of gender-based cyber-violence
The first panel focused on analysing gender-based violence as a phenomenon occurring in the cyber world. The first speaker of the panel, Eleonora Esposito, a researcher from the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), presented the analysis of cyber-violence against women and girls. The research, which started in 2017, focused on the emerging forms of violence in the online environment, Esposito highlighted that given the fact that technologies are rapidly evolving, it is quite difficult to capture the problem to the full extent. Nevertheless, it is clear that there are more incidents of cyber violence every year, across various platforms and across borders and cultures. EIGE’s conceptualises gender-based cyber violence as an online-offline continuum of violence that can be sexual, economic and/or psychological. This is supported by data revealing that women are more likely to experience violence, especially lesbian and transgender women. Therefore, cyber violence is a gendered and an intersectional phenomenon closely tight to the inequality between women and men. Combating of gender-based cyber-violence is hindered by the fact that legal instruments are very general and unharmonized and that data collection is limited and unsystematic. As a result of this, EIGE aims to develop a common cyber-violence framework that will help to harmonise the approach to provide solutions for combating this across the whole European Union.
Tuija Saresma, a senior lecturer in the Research Centre for Contemporary Culture, continued the panel contributions by presenting her research on online hate speech. Her research on the experience of Finnish female politicians revealed that hate speech is a gendered phenomenon that threatens democracy. Hate speech is often used as a tool to exert pressure and to silence opponents (often progressives and reformists). Furthermore, even politicians themselves use hate speech, which then provides a certain level of credibility to the attackers when they see someone respected with authority to conduct the very same acts as them. Moreover, her research showed that two thirds of the interviewed people believed that hate speech had increased in the past few years and that hate speech diminished political participation. Hate speech shows features of gender differences and is intersectional. The authors of hateful statements are mostly men that have three major motives – ideological, emotional, and performative. As hate speech paves the way for other forms of violence; it must be dealt with thoroughly and comprehensively.
The Swedish researcher on toxic language in social media from Stockholm University, Lisa Kaati, talked about her research on the usage of toxic language against politicians and journalists. She discussed the methodological obstacles of detecting toxic language. Her study of 6 800 000 comments revealed that around 5% of all Swedish comments are toxic. Toxic comments often target women, who receive comments about their mental health, character, appearance, looks (stemming from the perception of women as sexual objects). Men are more often attacked in relation to their professional performance and receive direct and indirect threats (violence). Ms Kaati concluded her contribution by raising awareness of the European Online Hate Lab that was established to share resources to improve the study of hate speech.
This was followed by contributions of Josefina Erikson and Cecilia Josefsson (Associate professors at Uppsala University) who talked a bit more about gender differences in politicians’ exposure to online abuse. Their study zoomed in on the Swedish Parliament and the online harassment of politicians. Social media are now approached as an arena where the public intervenes in both the public and the private sphere to the targeted individuals. The online harassment of MPs is increasing over time with women being more vulnerable to social media abuse than men. Also, the more active an MP is the more exposure to harassment they get. The type of abuse is differentiated based on gender as well – women are often subjected to patronising comments and remarks linked to their political competence. Despite threats of violence being less common in Sweden, there are still instances of rape and death threats, which are not perceived as real threats but rather a form of harassment. In addition, the abuse towards women is related specifically to their gender and sexuality – e.g. “women should not express their opinion in public”. As a result of this online harassment, their study found out that women feel more silenced and restricted in what they post online, while men are more likely to leave their position.
The last panellists was a Czech legal expert on image based sexual violence Michaela Čejka Dvořáková. Non-consensual creation, possession and distribution of private sexual images, including deep fakes and nudifying apps, sexploitation and sextorition are currently not explicitly regulated within the Czech legal system. Čejka Dvořáková stressed that the intent of causing distress to the victim should not be seen as a condition for persecution. The Directive on combating violence against women and domestic violence, could help to overcome the resistances to the adopt amendments to the Criminal code.
Panel 2: Policy framework for combating gender-based cyber-violence
The second panel of the conference evolved around sharing best practices from different countries in implementing legislative measures, in order to combat gender-based cyber violence. The first speaker was Iris Luarasi, President of the Council of Europe Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence. She pointed out that the pandemic has worsened the situation and it is vital to hold the perpetrators accountable. This can be accomplished through the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence as it provides a clear guidance of how to respond to the digital violence against women. The Convention is the most far-reaching instrument in terms of gender violence, which addresses sexual harassment, stalking and sets in stone the criminalisation of these acts. Moreover, sexual violence and stalking have far-reaching consequences in their lives, which is one of the reasons why the first General Recommendation to the Convention on Digital dimension of violence against women applies a holistic approach to improve prevention, protection, prosecution and coordinated policies to combat gender-based cyber violence.
Stephanie Oener, a Judge, and a Ministerial clerk and one of the authors of the Austrian Law to Combat Online-Hate shared the Austrian experience with the legal framework for prosecution of gender-based cyber-violence. This includes up-skirting, image dissemination and sexist hate speech. Austria adopted new sections in criminal code which aimed to combat online-hate and gender-based violence. This has also improved the protection of victims, who are now entitled to legal and psychological support to cope better with the consequences of the cyber violence (free of charge – irrespective of their financial situation). Lastly, Ms Oener stressed that a further evaluation of the policies is yet to be done to assess its real-life impacts.
Belgium is also among the countries which adopted a new framework to combat cyber violence. Phedra Neel, a Legal expert that worked on Legal regulation of non-consensual possession and distribution of intimate images in Belgium, explained that the Belgian discourse uses “digital sexual violence” not gender-based cyber-violence. The new legislation focuses on the criminalisation of up-skirting and deep fakes. The future reforms should focus on the inclusion of sending intimate material to people who did not ask for this material and developing a tool to educate bystanders who can step in when they see something like this happening.
It is not only the perpetrators themselves but also the platforms they are using which need to be held accountable. Alexander Schäfer, the Head of division for Telecommunication and Media Law, Protection against Digital Violence, ePrivacy at the German Federal Ministry of Justice, talked about the responsibility of online platforms. Mr Schäfer focused on the Network Enforcement Act that was adopted by Germany to fight online hate speech. It obliges social media platforms to set up a complaints management to combat illegal content, on top of that they are required to allow users to send complaints if they come across content that is illegal, which then has to be reviewed by the platforms and eventually removed. Moreover, the new law in Germany established a public authority that monitors compliance of the platforms with the legislation and it can impose fines to social media providers for not fulfilling the requirements. In the future, the EU Digital Services Act will replace this German law as it aims to fight against illegal content and will be applied from February 2024 across the whole EU.
The UK also has a specific Bill which regulates social media platforms. Richard Thompson, Deputy Director of the Online Policy Unit and Research, Information and Communications Unit at Home Office, talked about the Online Safety Bill as a measure to combat violence against women and girls. The Online Safety Bill will come into effect in spring 2024 and aims to tackle stalking, rape, sexual harassment and also the online forms of violence (e.g. revenge porn, non-consensual sharing of images, up-skirting). Furthermore, it will enable the government regulator to actively enforce compliance of tech companies with the new regulation. Overall, its main goal is to prevent users to share and encounter illegal content (such as revenge pornography, online harassment, cyber stalking, new communications offense, deep fakes, cyber flashing).
Lastly Cristiania Carletti, a Professor focusing on international organisations, human rights, and peace and security measures, talked about the 2019 amendment to the Criminal Code. The reform criminalised the unlawful dissemination of sexually explicit images without consent of the person as breaches of the right to privacy, right to image and right to personal identity. In case of a breach, the perpetrator can be fined up to 15,000€ or imprisoned. The law also aims to protect minors and establishes an emergency channel for potential victims of revenge porn.
The panel was concluded by a debate that evolved around the topic of the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence and its adoption and subsequent ratification in the remaining countries, including Czechia. The speakers debated the measures and talked about the heated discussions that were part of this adoption/ratification process in their respective countries. This can serve as an example for other countries that are currently going through similar processes of adoption/ratification of the Convention within their jurisdiction. Ms Neel concluded by highlighting the importance of language that we use. The Convention provides not only the enhancement of the legal framework, but also allows the victims to term their suffering, which gives them a whole another level of empowerment.
Panel 3: Preventing and raising awareness about gender-based cyber-violence
The last panel of the conference emphasised the ways how gender-based cyber-violence can be prevented. The first speaker of the panel, Phoebe Crowder, the Global digital programmes director-domestic abuse, introduced the Bright Sky programme, which is a domestic abuse support app. This shows that technology can serve as an empowerment and helpful tool. Statistically speaking, 72% of women are subjected to tech abuse and 97% of domestic violence victims report being harassed online. Bright Sky breaks down the barriers to specialist support by providing a helpline and further education, which leads to a reduction of the stigma. Additionally, it allows for a direct route to specialists, which can also be accessed from anywhere. The app is well-known – at least 1 in 10 victims were aware that it existed; and it has been downloaded by over 69,000 people in the Czech Republic.
The Bright Sky App was introduced in the Czech Republic by Vodafone. Veronika Řídelová, who is a Program Manager for the Bright Sky app to address domestic violence, Vodafone Czech Republic shared her experience with the cooperation with Rosa (a Czech NGO that helps victims of domestic violence), the Czech Police and the Ministry of Interior. The app serves as an awareness raising tool that prevents gender-based violence by providing real-life scenarios to show stories of people and the development of cyber violence. The most used features are the support to assess and understand their potential risk and the practical tips to stay safe. Bright Sky aims to give some control back to the survivor and equip them with information and access to help.
Johanna Nejedlová, the Director of the Konsent NGO, shared her experience with the work she conducts together with the Department of the Gender Equality at the Office of the Czech Government on gender-based cyber violence to prevent sexual assault both online and offline. The main method Konsent uses are workshops for pupils organised with the aim to raise awareness in secondary schools. She explained the methods they use to break down the stereotypes as the underlying source of both online and offline bullying. In addition, Nejedlová stressed the importance of using real-life scenarios to give the children a clearer idea of how easily cyber bullying can happen and if it happens what they shall do to solve the situation.
Lukas Henseleit, Co-Founder NGO Digital Dignity, brought to the discussion a perspective of a NGO that aims to make the Internet a safe space that can be free, private and respectful at the same time. The organisation’s software aims to empower individuals on the Internet by providing support to the victims, who are mostly women and members of the LGBTQI+ community aged 16-35 years, and who suffer psychological distress. This is a result of the fact that there are over 1 million stolen intimate pictures and videos that are circulating on the Internet, out of which 90% of victims are women. This problematic phenomenon was only boosted by the pandemic, which saw a 50% increase in image based sexual violence. Moreover, Mr Henseleit added that the situation has worsened due to ignorance of the issues by the platforms, inaction of the police and new technologies.
Emma Holten, the Founder of CONSENT organisation, a feminist activist and a gender policy consultant, shared her own personal journey as a survivor of image based sexual violence with the focus on the right of privacy. She explained the mechanisms of secondary victimisation stemming from the false belief that “bad things don’t happen to good people”. This consequently creates an additional barrier within the system for the victims who are then afraid of speaking up and are pushed into a position where they must fight for their experience to be considered relevant. Moreover, Ms Holten explained how cultural expectations in a patriarchal society diminish any possibility of speaking up against violence. This also puts women into a position where they are either “good” or “bad” women, which further increases their marginalisation and creates a toxic environment. Holten emphasised the importance of solidarity, empathy and collectivism that need to be applied, in order to break down the barriers.
The last speaker, Christian Mogensen, a Specialist Consultant on Digital Radicalization & Extremism, Center for Digital Youth Care, Denmark, introduced his study of the “Angry Internet, “which analysed over 600 billion posts, comments, and tweets on social media in the Nordic countries. The study found that the role of toxic masculinity strongly encourages the perpetrators to enact the violence on other users. Moreover, the role of emotions played a key role as the interviewed men who struggle with the expression of their feelings (with horny and hungry being the most used terms) and often blamed feminism and sexual liberation of our society for the problems that they are experiencing. The study explains how crucial it is to engage with these young men that disengage from society and encourage the idea of us vs them. If we reduce these movements to just being angry or violent, then we are fixating on the symptom rather than the cause.
After the very rich presentations delivered by legal experts, researches and representatives of the European Commission, EIGE and NGOs and the private sector from Europe the participants have gained a great insight into data collection, policy-making and prevention of gender-based cyber-violence.