Featured image: Presenting Groundviews’ research on a panel put together by Counterpart International, photo by Marilyn Vernon

Update: Groundviews apologises for confusion caused with the photograph of an individual with a red lanyard, which is not allowed under RightsCon participation policies. The individual themselves approved for this photo to be taken in this sole instance, and to be used in this article. 

The first months of 2018 have seen global scrutiny of Facebook steadily increase and the reveal of the data breach by Cambridge Analytica. Several countries impacted by the weaponisation of social media and curtailment of online freedom of speech are due to hold elections later in the year. Against this background, Groundviews attended RightsCon to share insights on research we have conducted on technology-based violence against women, as well as to share insights on the role, relevance and reach of social media in the violent riots against Muslims, earlier this year. This work addresses the factors that keep citizens from fully participating in democratic spaces online and the responsibility social media platforms have to their users, both topics that resonated with the RightsCon audience, especially those from the Global South.

RightsCon – held mid-May with nearly 2,500 participants attending from 115 countries – claims to be not so much a digital rights conference, but a conference on human rights in the digital age. This meaningful pivot in focus becomes essential as our offline and online lives grow even more intertwined. This year, the conference was held in Toronto, Canada.

Technology-based violence against women: local research, regional trends

Our research, monitoring the way women are discussed on social media platforms since late 2017, primarily on Facebook, shows how this participation is compromised due to harassment and violence. Those impacted range from young women and members of the LGBTIQ community to politicians and activists – who at the gathering described the way these vicious attacks affected them mentally, and disturbingly, sometimes resulting in physical violence.

During discussions at the conference, the issues with women’s safety online raised as being prevalent in Sri Lanka were echoed by activists, particularly from the South Asian region. The impunity that anonymity affords, coupled with law enforcement officials who discriminate against women, amplify the issue across countries.

Activists from India note how difficult it is for women to access solutions to this online violence given how widespread it is and considering the geographical extent of the country. Authorities are either inaccessible to the women who need their help or officials themselves engage in shaming the survivor.

The operators of a help-line in Pakistan said a majority of the calls they receive are with regards to cyber-bullying, and many callers are on the verge of suicide. Shaming by the authorities is a reason why many don’t come forward with their stories either.

While not the ideal response, as the fault is not the woman’s own, stronger digital security is a first step to safety, especially for outspoken activists. As a Ugandan activist pointed out, civil society would need to take these steps if the law wasn’t going to hold the perpetrator to account. They are therefore creating community-sourced tools to educate girls, as existing material is not easily relatable. With familiar imagery and simple language, girls are better able to access essential information that is usually technical. Groundviews’ trilingual digital security wiki was also created to further this knowledge.

We presented our findings on Sri Lanka at a panel put together by Counterpart International on the second day of the conference. In addition to the reporting trends, we highlighted how tech-based violence played out during the February 2018 local government election, toward female political candidates. Our field research on this aspect has shown us that online, and offline violence, impacts the full participation of women in civic spaces.

This restriction of voices from democratic discourse and political or social critique was addressed by other participants on the panel, including internet shutdowns in Venezuela and Zimbabwe, as well as state-sponsored misinformation campaigns in Ukraine and Ecuador. Participants noted the extent of the damage done so far, and the need to address this before key elections in their countries.

There was a lot of critical interest in Sri Lanka’s recent experience of hate speech on Facebook. The blocking of the platform and the engagement we have had with its representatives was of interest to those looking at accountability of large social media platforms. This included journalists from Vice, professionals from the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, and lawyers from the American Bar Association.

Accountability of technology and media platforms

Accountability was widely discussed across various panels of the conference. Activists highlighted the grassroots impacts of their standards and moderation policies. They stressed that when not enacted fully, these policies lead to the silencing of voices on the Internet. The most widely agreed-upon action was that transparency was needed from these platforms to the users that engage on them daily.

Groundviews had been in contact with activists from Vietnam and Myanmar, the latter’s experience with hate speech online and violence offline being closely mirrored in Sri Lanka, and vice versa. Having watched the violence in Digana unfold, and the response of all stakeholders to the violence, it was troubling to see that we were far from the only ones frustrated with addressing the effects that Facebook has had on our communities. Global South activists shared the following insights into the harmful impacts;

  • In Syria, journalists who put their lives on the line to report from the warzone have their content removed, and are also tracked through their accounts.
  • In India, Facebook and WhatsApp are used as machines for misinformation by Modi’s BJP, which leads to mobilisation of hate groups against minorities. Facebook is used to track Dalit activists, and they are arrested for the content they post. In addition, activists expressed concern due to Facebook’s role in India’s 2014 elections, which brought Modi into power.
  • In Taiwan, any alternate media that is critical of China finds their content removed.
  • In Israel, the government has an agreement with Facebook on content removal, which regularly sees Palestinian content being removed.
  • In Ethiopia, activists critical of the government are blocked for posting too much on Facebook and if arrested, then often made to disclose all their social media passwords.

The list goes on, and the group of activists therefore strategized that regional/coordinated activity would have more value considering the slow responses given to individual countries, as put forward in Sri Lanka’s open letter to Facebook.

These activists met with officials from Facebook’s Policy, Safety and Security teams, to present issues not just as they pertained to specific countries, but broader concerns echoed by the entire group. These related to enduring concerns around moderation, transparency, the weaponisation of social media particularly around electoral processes and parity of treatment with Western markets.

‘West-focused’ conversations on digital rights

Across the conference, panellists critiqued current discourse around digital rights and the internet, from the lens that most of it is focussed around a Western/Global North perspective. Several participants noted that some panels themselves embodied this flaw.

South American panellists noted that the discourse around ‘foreign interference’ in elections is largely framed by and linked to the United States-Russia context and the fallout of the Presidential Election in 2016. They went on to stress that domestic interference is a bigger concern for their countries, going into elections soon. Based on past observations, they believe it has more real life impacts for citizens at the grassroots, by way of the tracking of activists and location-specific blocking of the internet based on activities of pro-democracy groups.

Indian activists concurred with the South American participants, flagging how Facebook’s Governance Team’s support for Modi and the BJP ensured the party’s rise to power. Their concern is largely due to the fact that the party’s Hindu nationalist stance has put the lives of minority religious groups at risk.

The call for parity therefore was key for the group advocating to Facebook, and was created for the purpose of amplifying the Global South perspective on digital human rights, a perspective often called on only as a showcase of token diversity.

Global networks and knowledge-sharing

The conference provided a range of opportunities to build understanding and linkages between people with interest on a certain topic. Meetings with Twitter, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression David Kaye were important interactions in this regard.

Twitter noted with concern the issues Sri Lanka has had with social media platforms due to the limited capacity to moderate the Sinhala language and the possible weaponization of social media to spread misinformation through the platform.

With the Electronic Frontier Foundation, we shared issues of internet shutdowns and the problems that crop up when governments begin to talk about ‘regulating’ social media’.

David Kaye, while aware of Sri Lanka’s history of the curtailment of freedom of expression offline, is looking into trends that map onto the country’s ongoing struggle with this online.

These topics will grow more relevant for Sri Lanka in the wake of the short-lived but disturbing, arbitrary and entirely ineffective block on social media in March, which follows what is even under the present government a deeply censorious approach to online content that is critical of it.

Most conversations at RightsCon were still lead by developing countries, those with more access to artificial intelligence, cyber-security and advanced technological solutions. This often meant that the basic stepping stones, which developing countries need to account for, were not discussed. For example, technological solutions aren’t as quickly adapted in the developing world due to inadequate infrastructure or government influence. Concerns with online surveillance and violence have devastating effects in the real world, and in some cases have to do with the spread of polarised messages by the weaponization of social media. Algorithmic bias of artificial intelligence (AI) and lack of language support can lead to the silencing of voices that are already the most vulnerable in their contexts.

Contextual knowledge and holistic recommendations need to be put forth by those designing digital solutions – the existing lack of these contribute to the dangerous and restricted digital spaces for women and minorities in the developing world.  Events such as RightsCon, therefore, must do more amplify the voices and account for practical ground realities of countries that still have a long way to go in this regard.

The diverse community present at RightsCon serves to remedy this to a certain extent; the presence of women, people of colour and the LGBTIQ community bring welcome nuance to these discussions. These individuals are operating in environments that are most hostile to them, in terms of infrastructure and socio-political actors, yet are making incredible impact with their community-focused work. This representation allows access to knowledge that is more easily transferable to our contexts than expert publications that come from the developed world. These conversations, that are often centred around gender, minority rights or limits to access, have more far-reaching impact than those that are centred solely around technology.