Online Violence and Social Media
This guide is no longer being maintained
Social Networking has been paramount to the efforts of women human rights defenders (WHRDs) to campaign, report injustice, maintain access to current information and find safe spaces to communicate and share experiences. Hashtag campaigns like #takebackthetech, #YesAllWomen, and #EverydaySexism; Facebook groups for events and campaigns; and other platforms, such as Instagram and YouTube, have all facilitated the exchange of information and strengthened the feminist movement.
At the same time, gender equality does not yet exist online, and gender-based violence remains pervasive on the internet. This makes learning the ins and outs of online digital security and privacy even more important for WHRDs.
“A 2005 Pew Research Study found that while men and women engage online in equal numbers, women receive the worst of what the internet has to offer.” 1
Throughout the range of tools available for social networking, it matters not only what kind of information you share, but also how you communicate with peers, friends, family, and fellow organisers. Of course, these statements are true even before digital security and privacy is considered. Facebook allows you to post on your wall, exchange “private” messages, and create groups, events, and pages. Twitter's bite-sized 140 character limit allows you to post what you're doing, what's on your mind, and links to articles and information. Instagram and Youtube are for posting and commenting on photos and videos respectively.
Even within the short list of platforms mentioned above, you can already begin to think about:
- The range of options for which social media platforms you use.
- The many shades of public, private, and secure—some of which are dependent on how you configure your privacy settings, and some of which are intrinsic to the tools themselves.
- The fact that, even if you establish strict privacy settings within a social networking platform, the content you share is accessible to those who operate the platform and to anyone with whom they are willing to share it.
- The fact that information – called meta-data – about you and those with whom you interact can also be revealed through picture data, network analysis and other forms behavioural tracking.
The following questions might provide a helpful checklist before you use social media in any context:
Before using social media, ask yourself:
- Who can access the information I am putting online?
- Who controls and owns the information I submit to a social networking platform?
- What information about me are my contacts passing on to other people?
- Will my contacts mind if I share information about them with other people?
- Do I trust everyone with whom I'm “connected?”
And consider taking the following actions:
Always make sure you use secure passwords to access social networks. If anyone else does get into your account, they are gaining access to a lot of information about you and about anyone else you are connected to via that social network. Change your passwords regularly as a matter of routine. See our guide on How to create and maintain secure passwords for more information.
Make sure you understand the default privacy settings offered by the social networking site, and how to change them.
Be careful when accessing your social network account in public internet spaces. Delete your password and browsing history when using a browser on a public machine. See our guide How to destroy sensitive information.
Access social networking sites using https:// to safeguard your username, password and other information you post. Using https:// rather than http:// adds another layer of security by encrypting the traffic from your browser to your social networking site. See our guide How to remain anonymous and bypass censorship on the internet.
Be careful about putting too much information into your status updates – even if you trust the people in your networks. It is easy for someone to copy your information.
Most social networks allow you to integrate information with other social networks. For example you can post an update on your Twitter account and have it automatically posted on your Facebook account as well. Be particularly careful when integrating your social network accounts! You may be anonymous on one site, but exposed when using another.
Be cautious about how safe your content is on a social networking site. Never rely on a social networking site as a primary host for your content or information. It is very easy for governments to block access to a social networking site within their boundaries if they suddenly find its content objectionable. The administrators of a social networking site may also decide to remove objectionable content themselves, rather than face censorship within a particular country.
The above is a baseline for all users on social media. Unfortunately, as online citizens, we are not all represented or treated equally online. The following information is specifically relevant to us, as women human rights defenders who are active online.
Gender and Social Media
While social media can be extremely useful for organising actions and campaigning, if we aren't careful how we use them, tools like Facebook, Twitter and others can leave us exposed to surveillance, harassment and threats. Aside from being a favourite tool of oppressive states looking to place civil society under surveillance, these platforms often subject women to sexualised harassment from those who oppose their work.
The following elements are especially relevant to the online work of WHRDs:
Sharing information about yourself Social networking platforms ask you for a good deal of information to make it easier for other users to find you. Perhaps the biggest vulnerability this creates, for users of these platforms, is the possibility of identity fraud, which is increasingly common. In addition, the more information about yourself you reveal online, the easier it becomes for the authorities to identify you and monitor your activities. The families of activists in the diaspora, for example, have been targeted by the authorities in their homeland due to the exposure of their online activities. Ask yourself: is it necessary to post the following information online?
- birth dates
- contact phone numbers
- details of family members
- sexual orientation
- education and employment history
The Gender and Tech Manual recommends self-doxing as a way see what kind of information is already available to others online. It also discusses creative ways to manage your online identity. Among these are:
- Total anonymity, or keeping your identity and any uniquely identifying details about you completely hidden
- Persistent pseudonimity, or using a fictitious name consistently over a period of time
- Collective Identity through collective anonymous participation
- Using your real name
The table below show the pros and cons of the various approaches to identity management listed above:
Read more about this in Tactical Technology Collective's Gender and Tech Manual
Revealing Your Location
Most social networking sites will display your location if that data is available. This function is generally provided when you use a GPS-enabled phone to interact with a social network, but don't assume that it's not possible if you aren't connecting from a mobile. The network your computer is connected to may also provide location data. The way to be safest about it is to double-check your settings.
Be particularly mindful of location settings on photo and video sharing sites. Don't just assume that they're not sharing your location: double-check your settings to be sure.
See also the Locational Data section of Me & My Shadow, and On Locational Privacy, and How to Avoid Losing it Forever from the Electronic Frontier Foundation website.
Sharing videos and photos
Photos and videos can easily reveal people's identities. It's important that you have the consent of the subject(s) of any photographic content that you intend to publish. Be aware of how you may be compromising the privacy of others and never post a video or photo of anyone without first getting their consent.
Photos and videos can also reveal information unintentionally. Many cameras will embed hidden metadata (such as EXIF tags) that reveal the date, time, and location of the photo, camera type, etc. Photo and video sharing sites may publish this information when you upload content to their sites.
Tactical Tech's Gender and Tech Manual recommends that women seek out safe spaces for their online communication. Safe spaces are defined as
“spaces that are created though explicit community agreement, or through an implicit sharing of values. They enable members of a group to flourish, create community, and empower themselves.”
This could involve using a social media platform to share and exchange information, which might require addressing the associated risks by leveraging tactics such as the following:
- Maintaining multiple identities
- Configuring advanced privacy settings
- Using anonymising sofware such as Tor
In order to create safe spaces, you might also have to adopt alternative methods of online communication. A recent article in New York Magazine, recommends newsletters and mailing lists as the “Internet's safe space for women.” 1. This kind of exchange still requires that you consider which mailing list providers you are willing to work with, and what additional precautions (such as email encryption) might be necessary, but is generally 'safer' in that participants have more control over who is part of the discussion and how their information is or is not shared.
See also the Gender and Tech tutorial on co-creating safe spaces.
Alternative media platforms do exist. Examples include Diaspora, Crabgrass, Friendica, or Pidder which have been designed with digital security and activism in mind. They have the most users, which makes them them the most convenient platforms from which to communicate with others.
In short, evaluate your use of social media platforms. If your purpose is to communicate privately with a discussion group, or organise private events and campaigns, then you might want to consider some of the alternatives listed above.
For more information, see: