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A lexicon of cyberviolence: Nine types of online abuse against women that may go unnoticed

A European project identifies and defines the different forms of harassment that occur online and through electronic devices. But statistics are not available and most legislation fails to address them

University students attend a class on hate crimes in Spain.
University students attend a class on hate crimes in Spain.Javier Hernández

Physical violence, especially against women, is the tip of the iceberg. For each obvious case of violence, there are dozens more cases of latent abuse over a period of time. In most instances, the internet and technology serve to facilitate and exacerbate such harassment and violence. A study conducted over the last two years by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), Combating Cyber Violence against Women and Girls, concludes that there is “a serious lack of data and research that hinders a proper assessment of the prevalence and impact” of this scourge. “Until last year, we didn’t even have a consensus about the definitions,” says Berta Vall, an associate at the Blanquerna-Ramon Llull University Couples and Family Research Group and a member of the European DeStalk project against cyberviolence. The EU study identifies nine areas of online abuse from the overt — stalking, extortion, intimidation, harassment, gender-based hate speech and non-consensual use of intimate images — to less visible, subtler forms of violence, which include using internet-connected household devices, trolling and doxing.

In December, during routine surveillance of the area surrounding the home of a woman who had filed a restraining order, Spain’s Isla Mayor Civil Guard police spotted the victim’s ex-partner, against whom she had the restraining order, in his car, parked right in front of her house. The vehicle inspection turned up a “remote video surveillance application [on his cellphone], through which her ex had full knowledge and control of the woman’s movements,” the police officers explained. The woman’s ex-partner was arrested and taken into custody.

That episode exemplifies how technology facilitates different forms of cyberviolence, which includes violence committed on the internet, through social media and messaging platforms, as well as violence committed with electronic devices. “Online violence is a continuation of the violence that occurs against women and girls on a daily basis. It is amplified, extended and aggravated by the use of the internet and digital devices,” explains Albanian Iris Luarasi, the chair of the Expert Group on Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Grevio). This international team has published its first General Recommendation on the Digital Dimension of Violence against Women.

Kirsten Leube, a German representative at the Council of Europe, points out that “there is not enough data on the various forms of cyberviolence, which has to do with the fact that many member states do not address them in their criminal codes, so they are not collecting the corresponding data, either.”

The Kaspersky internet security company, which participates in the European DeStalk program, provides some data that offer a glimpse into the reality of cyberviolence. According to Kaspersky’s latest report, 70% of women in the EU who have experienced violence on social media or have been spied on via electronic devices have also endured at least one episode of physical or sexual aggression by a partner. In Spain, for example, 24% of the people that the company surveyed said that a partner or former partner had engaged in some form of violence or harassment that involved technology, while 21% suspect that they’re being spied on through a cellphone app. Despite those suspicions, three out of 10 respondents said that partner control over a woman is not problematic “under certain circumstances.”

The EIGE study aims to raise awareness and correct misconceptions about behavior that is unacceptable under any circumstances, despite the opinion of those 30% who said otherwise. The first step is identifying these behaviors. To that end, Combating Cyber Violence against Women and Girls lists nine types of violence commonly committed against girls and women online.

Cyber stalking. It occurs methodically and persistently, and perpetrators do it with the intention of undermining the victim’s sense of security. This practice can include e-mails, offensive or threatening messages, posting intimate photos or videos, and following victims in different ways.

Cyber harassment/cyberbullying. This practice is defined as persistent intimidation, coercion or harassment designed to cause severe emotional distress and, often, fear of physical harm. Vulnerable youths and children are the main victims of this form of cyberviolence. Cyber harassment/cyberbullying may also include requesting sexual favors or delivering unwanted offensive, humiliating, degrading or intimidating content as well as threats and hate speech on social media.

Online hate speech/incitement to violence or hatred. Although hate speech is a broad term usually associated with violence against groups because of their ethnicity, religion or national origin, it also occurs against women. Gendered hate speech includes sexualization, objectification and degrading comments about physical appearance, as well as threats of rape.

Non-consensual dissemination of intimate photographs, spying and sexual extortion. The first activity refers to publicly sharing sexually explicit content of one or more persons without their consent. Most victims are women, and such material is usually disseminated by the victim’s ex-partner to be vindictive or undermine her privacy. Voyeurism, or digital spying, is another form of violence in which perpetrators take and share photographs of a woman’s private parts online. In addition, disseminating doctored images and sending unsolicited sexually explicit content are emerging types of cyberviolence.

Trolling. According to Combating Cyber Violence against Women and Girls, “trolling is a deliberate act of luring others into useless circular discussion, with the result of interfering with the positive and useful exchange of ideas in online discussion sites. It involves posting off-topic material in large quantities, as well as inflammatory, insensitive, aggressive or confusing messages.” Trolls may not know the victims. Sexist trolling includes gender-based insults, vicious language and threats of rape and death by a coordinated group in order to humiliate women, particularly those who express their opinions.

Flaming. Flaming is a form of aggressive and hostile online communication that always features insults, disaffection and hatred. Typographically, flaming comments are usually written in all capital letters and include exclamation marks. This type of cyberviolence is used to provoke a reaction from another user. It is closely related to trolling and is not generally recognized as violence in legislation or policy. Flaming can be overtly misogynistic and often contains threats or fantasies of sexual violence or incitement to sexual violence.

Doxing or doxxing. This type of abuse consists of searching for, collecting and publicly sharing personally identifiable information without the target’s consent; doxing reveals personal and sensitive data like home addresses, photographs and names of the victim and his/her relatives. Through harassment and threats, a large number of perpetrators can employ this sort of cyberviolence to cause significant psychological consequences. In addition, by allowing victims to be physically located, it can also be a precursor to physical violence. Doxers acquire the information they expose by searching publicly available databases and social media websites, as well as through hacking and social machinations. Motives may include harassment, exposure, financial harm, extortion or even singling out the victim in the real world. Doxing can also involve manipulating the information in order to further expose and embarrass the victim.

Grooming. This form of violence is defined as coercing a victim to expose or share sexual material. Unlike direct extortion, it is a process by which the perpetrator prepares the victim for abuse with manipulative behavior to obtain sexual content, such as nude photographs, personal conversations or other online interactions. Grooming begins by making contact with victims, particularly minors, to build a relationship of trust, in which the perpetrators use fake profiles to impersonate someone else and facilitate fake friendships that culminate in extortion.

IoT-facilitated violence. This refers to using the IoT (Internet of Things or internet-connected devices) to harass, stalk, control or abuse the victim. This is done through devices such as smart doorbells, speakers, security cameras or any other internet-connected device that can be controlled from a distance. Examples of this type of violence include flipping switches on or off (such as the lights or heat in the victim’s home), locking another person in a location by controlling a smart security system, or recording via security cameras or personal electronic devices.

Researcher Berta Vall emphasizes the importance of clearly defining the elements of cyberviolence: “We know that if you don’t have a name, a definition, it is very difficult for both victims and aggressors to identify it. There was an urgent need to know the different types of violence and specific tools to address it.”

The researcher advocates an intervention “that involves different stakeholders, not only from the psychological and law enforcement perspectives, but [one that also includes] legislators, politicians and society, [all of whom] need to be made aware of [cyberviolence].”

Tools to Protect against Cyberviolence

The increase in cyberviolence and the proliferation of methods to carry it out underscore the need for social awareness. “You don’t have to go to the dark web or be a hacker to engage in cyberviolence. In fact, just Google it and you find dozens of programs, apps and tutorials. It’s scary how much information there is on the Internet [to engage in] cyberbullying,” warns Elena Gajotto, the project manager of the Una Casa per l’Uomo organization, which is also a member of the DeStalk program.

Dimitra Mintsidis, of the European Network for the Work with Perpetrators of Domestic Violence (WWP) project, argues that programs like these should “ensure that women and girls are free and safe in the spaces in which they act and live. Women must be empowered to recognize forms of digital violence, men must be discouraged from using them, available resources must be advertised and mobilized.”

The Kaspersky cybersecurity company offers free courses on cyberviolence in five languages. In addition, along with the Stop Digital Gender Violence Association, it has given a series of workshops to train International Police Members Association officers in TinyCheck software, which was created to detect spyware and other digital harassment tools on tablets and cellphones. During these sessions, the officers also received training in advanced systems for locating cyber threats, specifically cyberstalking spyware.

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