Tackling online gender-based violence — in conversation with Akhila Kolisetty, End Cyber Abuse
One in four adolescents have seen a morphed image or video of themselves, and half of them do not even want to report it to the Police according to a study by Child Rights and You in the Delhi-National Capital Region last year. With states like Maharashtra where one woman is stalked or bullied on social media every day, and cases of rape videos being sold in places like Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, there is a need to understand the root cause of such crimes and how all of us, especially women and people from marginalised groups can safeguard themselves in the digital world.
To learn more, we spoke to Akhila Kolisetty, the Co-Director of End Cyber Abuse, a collective of lawyers and human rights activists working to tackle technology-facilitated gender-based violence by raising awareness of rights, shifting cultural norms, advocating for survivor-centered systems of justice, and advancing equitable design of technology to prevent gendered harms. They seek to learn from and disseminate best practice across jurisdictions to better equip those on the ground facing such cases. Their work involves increasing awareness, shifting and challenging dominant narratives that perpetuate harm, and sharing feminist analysis and research about laws, policies and tech.
Read about the conversation we had with her below :
Q: How does gender influence our experience online, particularly during the pandemic?
Akhila: The digital world has increasingly become our public square — the main space we exist in to connect with one another, work, attend school, and even have intimate relationships.
As with any crisis, those most marginalized due to structural discrimination tend to be disproportionately impacted. Currently, many forms of technology-facilitated gender violence are on the rise. For example, the UK Revenge Porn Helpline reported skyrocketing traffic to its website and a surge in cases during the COVID-19 crisis.
More people are sharing intimate images without consent, engaging in patterns of online harassment or trolling, or perpetuating coercive behaviors in the context of intimate relationships — like monitoring one’s online communications or cyberstalking.
Even prior to the pandemic, abuse in online spaces tended to disproportionately impact people of marginalized genders and sexualities.
Amnesty’s India’s Troll Patrol found that 1 in 7 of the tweets that mentioned women politicians were problematic or abusive. And they found that Muslim women politicians and women from marginalized castes received added harassment that targeted their identity. These trends have only been amplified due to COVID-19.
Q: Why does this happen and are there specific risks that affect marginalized groups more?
Akhila: The cause of these online harms is not the Internet or technology. The root cause lies in gender discrimination and patriarchy — just like offline gender-based violence. It’s just that the anonymity of the web lowers the barriers to entry and makes the harm seem less immediate.
For example, boys and men often try to perform a type of toxic masculinity they feel is necessary to become ‘popular’ or show they are ‘real men.’ This was clearly on display during the Bois Locker Room incident in 2020, where boys from Delhi schools were allegedly sharing nude and other photos of girls in an Instagram group objectifying them, and commenting on how they would rape or sexually assault them.
We call this image-based sexual abuse (commonly known as “revenge porn”), a form of gender violence rooted in dynamics of power and control. Referring to it as ‘image-based sexual abuse,’ emphasizes this dynamic and shifts blame away from the victim and towards the perpetrator of harm.
With this abuse, offenders feel entitled to disseminate an image that may have been shared with them consensually and in confidence, often with the motivation to coerce, harass or shame them. They might also threaten to share intimate images to coerce their partner into staying in an abusive relationship, or refrain from reporting the abuse to the police or to a family member.
In the case of an LGBTQ+ person who isn’t yet out, the threat of sharing an intimate image with family members can be a form of blackmail.
Q: What is the impact of these forms of violence and abuse on marginalized groups?
Akhila: Restriction of access and self-policing of behaviour for safety: When a person of a marginalized gender or sexuality faces Gender Based Violence in digital spaces, it directly impacts their access, rather than that of the perpetrator. They’re forced to change their phone numbers, go private, or delete their online accounts for safety. Similar to the offline world where women are told to ‘stay at home,’ or not to go out late at night, so they don’t get assaulted. Ultimately, this protectionist reaction restricts access to the public sphere, both online and offline, for people of marginalized genders.
Similarity to offline sexual violence: The effects of this violence might be similar to offline sexual violence with severe mental health impacts, like a loss of bodily autonomy and control, anxiety, depression, PTSD, and even suicidal thoughts. It can be especially harmful because distinct from offline harm, online violence can have no end in sight — images shared without consent could continue to pop up on different sites online, continuing to traumatize the victim who has to constantly monitor and track the abuse online. It can also be very public and permanent in one’s digital record, even impacting job and educational prospects. There is often a misconception that technology-facilitated abuse is “less serious” than offline violence, but I think the above impacts illustrate just how severe the harm can be.
Victim Blaming: Victims of image-based sexual abuse are usually blamed for sending a nude image to a partner. This mirrors offline violence, where when someone reports a sexual assault, they’re often interrogated with questions like: “why were you dressed like that?” or “why did you go to a bar?” or “why did you go to the perpetrator’s house?” This shifts blame away from the perpetrator of harm, and towards the victim.
Threats to free speech and stigmatization: For many people of marginalized genders and sexualities, the online space has long been one of the few safe spaces for their free expression. When these spaces turn into sites of violence and oppression, people are pushed out, silenced, forced to self-censor. When technology is used to perpetrate harm, it also isolates victims, blocking their access to support systems or networks they might have online.
Q: Are there new or emerging harms that we need to be watchful of?
Yes — as technology evolves, so do the methods of abuse.
Akhila: Deepfakes use artificial intelligence technology to stitch together images or videos — and are becoming easier to create by the day. 95% of deepfake videos online actually involves non-consensual pornography, where women’s faces are superimposed onto naked or sexual images. An investigation into a bot that generates fake nudes on Telegram found that more than 680,000 women and girls had their images stolen to create pornographic images. The harms of deepfakes are very real, with survivors describing the experience as traumatic and similar to “digital sexual assault.” Yet, laws in most countries do not regulate or ban deepfakes, leaving victims largely without recourse.
Abusers are increasingly using spyware or stalkerware to surveill and control victims’ behavior. By installing spyware, abusers can monitor who their victims are communicating with; they can see their emails, texts, phone calls, location and so much more. This can be particularly risky in the context of an abusive relationship, where a victim cannot even report the harm or seek help from friends or family without the abuser knowing. The use of stalkerware might be more common than we think. There are also significant loopholes in the law, with the use of these softwares not usually illegal.
‘Smart home abuse,’ where abusers use tech in the home to track and monitor their intimate partners is also on the rise. For example, abusers might use ‘smart’ home doorbells with cameras to spy on when victims are coming and going, or who they’re with. Abusers have also used their phones to control smart objects in the home — for instance, they might turn the thermostat up and down or ring the doorbell remotely to scare or harass their victims. There’s also the threat of hidden cameras — which have been installed in workplaces, hotels, bathrooms, and changing rooms to spy on women and girls.
Q: What advice do you have for users when sharing private or sensitive information online?
Akhila: Review and customize privacy settings across platforms to ensure you’re sharing images, videos, and content only with people they’re comfortable with. Remember that platforms make it easy for users to download, screenshot or share images and videos elsewhere. You might not always be aware or notified when someone is copying or sharing an image you might have sent to them in confidence.
Reclaim Your Privacy has shared step-by-step instructions to change privacy settings and report harmful, violent or explicit content shared without your consent, on all platforms. Check it out here.
Understand how our data is being collected and monetized by platforms. Often, identifiable data like our name, address and phone number are easily accessible online , which harassers use to find and “dox” us, heightening the risk of offline harm.
If you want to know more about the value of your personal data and how it is bought and sold, go watch this film. Reclaim Your Privacy has also shared step-by-step instructions how to protect your personal data. Check it out here.
Set up Google alerts for your name, and request takedowns of basic identifying information when you find it can be a good preventive step.
Regularly change your passwords, choose strong passwords, and limit who you share them with.
Not good at remembering your passwords? Reclaim Your Privacy also suggests using a password manager, learn more here.
Call out offenders who share images without consent. Ultimately, while the above steps can be helpful, the responsibility for preventing harm should not be placed on survivors or victims. Offenders who abuse, harass, or violate privacy and consent must be held accountable. When we see abusive online behavior among friends, classmates, or co-workers, we all need to call it out.
Last year, we launched a series of country-specific factsheets that break down the criminal and civil laws providing remedies for victims image-based sexual abuse. For more information on India specific criminal and civil laws and remedies, click here.
End Cyber Abuse has also created an open source database sharing resources for anyone who is experiencing digital harm, including information about helplines, legal aid providers, counseling services, and other forms of support. For India specific resources, click here.
We’re working towards a world where people can feel free to share intimate videos or images with their loved ones, without a fear of repercussions. And so, it’s critical to shift our broader socio-cultural narratives to center consent and move away from victim-blaming approaches.