OHPI writes about cyberharassment of women in the Rosh Hashanah newsletter of The Jewish Taskforce published on September 8, 2015. You can access the newsletter here or read our contribution below. 

Cyberharassment: The next frontier of violence against women

The Royal Commission on Family Violence that is currently underway has uncovered many incidents of violence against women by their partners and ex-partners. The Commission’s aim is to examine these incidents to build better policies to ensure women’s safety in Victoria.

We applaud the Commission’s work. However, if we are debating policies for the future, we cannot ignore how the rise of social media and online tools has opened a whole new spectrum of potential violence against ordinary women.

Social media has become entrenched into our personal and professional lives. We use social media such as Linked In to further our careers, and others to meet new people, engage with friends and family and share nuggets of our everyday life. However, little is discussed about how this leaves women incredibly vulnerable to psychological abuse and harassment.

On March 8 this year, to mark the International Women’s Day, the Online Hate Prevention Institute published an account by the Australian feminist campaigner Caitlin Roper, in which she shared her personal experience to illustrate how social media is being used to threaten and harass women, to silence their voices, to damage their reputations, and to wage psychological violence against them. She shared examples of the sexist slurs, rape and death threats that she received on Twitter. In a particularly stressful incident, a US-based man set up another account using her name and profile picture and started pimping her publicly. Only the intervention of some US-based women’s rights groups helped her get the profile removed.

In another account recently published on Women’s Weekly, several Australian women shared how their harasser’s set up fake Facebook pages in their names to damage their reputation. In one cause, the fake profile started talking about the woman’s interest in kinky sex, going to the extent of throwing out at invite to a sex party at her place using her real address.

Such violence is not always perpetrated by strangers. Former partners also use social media to humiliate and harass women. Often, they have access to women’s passwords, online accounts, financial details etc, which they misuse to harass and stalk them.  Revenge porn is the most extreme example of it. The term describes the increasing incidences of former partners uploading intimate videos or images of women at the end of a relationship.  This has become so common that Israel, UK, Germany and 23 states in the US have passed legislations against it.

What is common in all the experiences is the sexually explicit nature of it. As the author of the 2014 book “Hate Crimes in Cyber Space” Danielle Citron explained in aninterview: “It [online hate against women] is sexually demeaning, it’s sexually threatening, it reduces the victims to basically their sexual organs, and sends the message that all they’re there for is to be sexually abused, used and thrown away, that they offer nothing.”

Another article discusses how men can use technology to block credit cards, online bank accounts, and wreck credit ratings of their former women partners.

Victims of such online harassment get little help from the law enforcement. Most are merely advised to get off social media. However, switching off is not an option for women, who are public activists. For others, removing themselves from social media does little as long as they know that people are viewing their fake accounts, reading malicious lies about them or have access to their intimate videos and photos.

The Online Hate Prevention Institute was set up to combat the growing incidences of online hate. Online misogyny is one of the forms of hate we tackle.

Here are some steps women can take to protect themselves from online abuse:

  • If someone posts abuse on your Facebook page, don’t engage with them. Block them.
  • Immediately report any fake profile set in your name. You can do that by clicking the three dots next to Message on any Facebook profile.
  • If you are sharing passwords to social, professional and financial online accounts with your partner, keep a list of all such accounts, and make sure to change them at the end of a relationship.
  • Some services like Facebook allow you to nominate trusted contacts who can help you recover your password. Keep a record of who you have listed as a trusted contact and remove them if you have a falling out.
  • Threats on social media are a crime. If you are in immediate fear for your safety call 000. If you get repeated threats, consider reporting them to police.
  • As a general security measure, enable 2 factor authentication for Facebook and Google accounts if you are using smart phones. This step will alert you, if an unknown device is used to access your account. Instructions on how to set it up are here.

However, what is urgently required is for women to acknowledge and recognise how online tools can be used to perpetrate psychological violence against them, and demand that deterrents are created against such use by social media companies and government.

You can view all the publications by OHPI on online misogyny here.

This article has been co-authored by Jo Silver and Chetna Mahadik. Jo Silver is a director of the Online Hate Prevention Institute and Chetna Mahadik is the communications officer for the organisation.