In this together: Making cyberspace safer for everyone

In this together: Making cyberspace safer for everyone

We, Sri Lankans are no strangers to local news reporting cases on gender based violence or violence against children, and now cyber violence. We hear about it, we react to it and then we move on – it’s almost as if we have become so accustomed to it, that it doesn’t take us by surprise anymore. But that doesn’t mean that we should stop talking about it or ignore it. 

With the recent COVID-19 pandemic, which has paved the way for what is now referred to as the “new normal,” human interaction and our day to day lives have become intertwined with digital technology. People are using social media more than ever – whether it is to share news, read updates and or to hide behind a screen and exploit or harass other people. 

“Cyber Violence” is defined as behaviours that criminally assault, or can lead to assault, of a person’s physical, psychological or emotional well-being and such behaviour is carried out or experienced by an individual or group online, over mobile phones or during internet games, etc. Some examples of cyber violence that you may be more familiar with include; cyber stalking, cyber bullying, image/ video-based sexual abuse, posting nudes and/or private content of an individual without their consent and grooming (especially in the case of minors).1

In 2020, amidst the pandemic, when people became heavily reliant on digital technology and also social media, cybercrimes in Sri Lanka increased at a staggering and concerning rate. Sri Lanka Computer Emergency Readiness Team (CERT) confirmed that the numbers of cybercrime cases had increased by 4693 from December 2019 to July 2020. Social media related cyber crime that includes privacy violation and impersonation had increased from 74.7% to 97.4% in 2020 alone.2  Whilst the cyber crimes reported by CERT are mostly around fake profiles, financial fraud, phone hacking and phishing, the list of the types of cyber crimes or more accurately, cyber violence faced by Sri Lankans are somewhat endless. 

The use of social media and other digital platforms for information sharing, have also become a weapon against marginalized communities such as women and girls and also  LGBTQIA+ people. Whilst women and girls are disproportionately affected by violence, recent data shows that they are also subjected to various forms of gender based cyber violence. “Gender based cyber violence” (GBCV) refers to online behaviour that  is intended to intimidate, to coerce, or to cause fear, anxiety, humiliation and extreme emotional distress on the basis of someone’s gender. Some examples of gender-based cyberviolence and cyber-related violence against women and girls that you may have heard of, include, and are not limited to, cyber stalking, non-consensual sharing of intimate content, gender-based slurs and harassment, ‘slut-shaming’, unsolicited pornography, ‘sextortion’, rape and death threats, ‘doxing’, and electronically enabled trafficking. A United Nations report on combatting violence against women and girls indicates that cyberviolence is just as damaging to women and girls as physical violence, and estimates that 73% of women have endured cyberviolence and are 27 times more likely than men to be harassed online. 3

In addition to this, a recent study published by the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs of Sri Lanka at the time, Save the Children and other project partner organizations on online violence against children in Sri Lanka highlighted the significant number of times that children are exposed to violence online. The study revealed that 28% of children have experienced some kind of online violence that includes receiving ‘indecent messages/links’, cyber bullying and extortion. Even though all children have faced some form of online violence, notably girls (29%) have faced slightly more online violence compared to boys (27%). According to the study, a staggering 20% of the children have also had an ‘indecent’ image of them being shared on the Internet.4 This shows how problematic the issue of cyberviolence is and that children can continue to be at a far greater risk if preventative measures are not taken.

On the other hand, cyberviolence isn’t new to members of the LGBTQIA+ community as well. Even though the Sri Lankan Constitution governs and recognizes that all citizens have the right to equality and cannot be discriminated on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political or other opinion, there remains a stigma attached to anyone who identifies as anything other than man/woman or straight/heterosexual. While women continue to be one of the marginalized communities, lesbian and bisexual women, gay and transgender people are further marginalized due to their sexual orientation. Colonial laws that were passed during the British rule in Sri Lanka continue to be heavy influences on the lack of equal rights in society, discrimination and queerphobia faced by the LGBTIQA+ community. Social media and digital community spaces that are considered to be important tools for members of this community to connect and freely express themselves, have unfortunately further exacerbated the discrimination and stigma faced by the members of the LGBTQIA+ community. 

Many of us use social media and other digital platforms for various purposes including socializing, networking and for information sharing. Most of us are on it simply for the memes. All of us have the right to use it in any way that is comfortable for us, but as we can see, some are faced with a risk when doing what anyone should have the freedom and liberty to do. If all of us are to equally enjoy digital technology, we have to ensure that cyberspace is safe for all users. So how do we make cyberspace safe for everyone?

One practice that should be normalized is to call someone out when they act irresponsibly on cyberspace. If you come across a comment or profile that is spreading misinformation, contains derogatory or hate speech, is exploiting someone else, or feels problematic in any way, call it out! When calling out, remember to take steps to protect yourself online and know that you might be exposing yourself to harassment and trolling as well. You can even go the extra mile by reporting or flagging that person’s comment or profile, so that they will be evaluated and possibly removed from that platform. We’re all so used to being bystanders that we forget how important it is to intervene, so that the person inflicting violence becomes aware of their actions. The more we call out problematic actions, the less likely it is to happen again. 

Furthermore, there are plenty of preventative methods that should be a general practice such as protecting your social media accounts, not sharing your passwords, not sharing your location, and the use of efficient reporting mechanisms to block anyone who is causing you trouble. However, these practices focus on protecting the user only to a certain extent and not necessarily reducing the actions of those causing the violence. To make cyberspace safer we need a collective effort. 

One could argue that one of the major reasons why cyberviolence is highly prevalent is because those committing the violence are so comfortable hiding behind a screen and saying whatever they want to say, without having to face any serious consequences. Anyone who engages with digital technology must use it in a responsible manner that does not pose a risk to another user. It’s always a good practice to obtain the permission of the user before sharing any of their content. It’s also important to engage in constructive dialogues that do not involve any form of derogative or hate speech. Simply said, spread love, not hate.

In addition to this, we’ve also seen how the cyberspace has posed more harmful and even dangerous risks in terms of the sharing of nudes, rape/death threats and even running online trafficking rings. The only way to stop such dangerous actions is to make sure the person causing the violence is fully held accountable for their actions by contacting law enforcement and taking legal action. However, there is a gap in  cyberviolence laws in Sri Lanka. Cyberviolence is identified as a punishable offence only when it fits into the definition of offences found in the cyber laws of Sri Lanka. However, regardless of the prevalence of cybercrime in Sri Lanka, to date, the spectrum of cybercrimes that are gender based have not been fully addressed and legislated into Sri Lankan law. For perpetrators to be held fully accountable for their actions, laws on cyberspace need to be inclusive of gender-based cyber violence. 

Nevertheless, this should not prevent someone from contacting the Police or taking legal action. Government agencies such as CERT provide support in the removal of content from the Internet and the Police can intervene to ensure any victim’s safety. There are also several organizations that are available to provide remedies and support in such cases. Hashtag Generation is just one of them!

Article by Sanjana Ravi


The views expressed on this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Hashtag Generation.

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