In the year 2018, the divide between online and offline worlds has become increasingly blurred. Behaviour seen in digital spaces and the language used in the dissemination of content mirrors offline practice to a great extent. This is why bodies like the Association for Progressive Communication and IT for Change recognise technology-based violence as an aspect of gender-based violence

Yet, this recognition is almost absent in Sri Lanka, with many institutions choosing to narrowly define such violence as ‘online harassment’ and treating it as a separate subject, as Programme Manager- Grassrooted Trust and English editor –, Sharanya Sekaram noted. This can have serious consequences, including that the response mechanisms tasked to deal with the issue are entirely inadequate.

The language seen in the exchanges of leaked photos for instance, reflects the general structures of patriarchy that exist in the real world. The boys receiving these images feel that they own them, giving them the entitlement to do whatever they want with them. This leads to everything from impulsive sharing across chat groups to revenge porn, where intimate photos shared with consent are disseminated non-consensually after a breakup.

To make matters worse, the response to such violence is simply to ‘tell the girls not to send the photos’ – a form of ‘victim blaming’ that does not acknowledge the violation of privacy that the perpetrator has committed, she pointed out.

Sekaram was speaking at a discussion facilitated by Groundviews, marking the launch of a digital security wiki on May 22, held at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) in Colombo. The trilingual wiki was created as part of a project researching into technology-based violence, particularly on Facebook. Groundviews found that this type of violence impacts a wide section of society including young girls, the LGBTIQ community, and female activists and politicians in Sri Lanka. In some instances, innocuous photos including profile photos had been shared on Facebook pages, with accompanying lewd and graphic commentary. The wiki attempts to create a repository of information, in all three languages, for those seeking to learn more about digital security and privacy.

The discussion at the launch focused on the underlying issues that allowed for technology-based violence– the wider socio-political context that ensured its continuing pervasiveness, the challenges in addressing this issue, and the experiences of those working to combat this issue more broadly.

The topic of digital security is often seen as ‘overly technical and daunting’ and yet, security is often not seen as a technical concept, said researcher and women’s rights activist, Subha Wijesiriwardene.

Wijesiriwardene was drawing from research conducted with Paba Deshapriya of Grassrooted Trust on the experiences of lesbian women online, part of a wider study titled “Disrupting the Binary Code: Experiences of LGBT Sri Lankans Online”.

There are other, unacknowledged issues in the institutions set up to respond to this violence, once discovered. For instance, the main body tasked to deal with technology-based violence, and especially photos disseminated online without permission, is the Cyber-Crimes Division of the CID. The CID has certain ominous associations for many in Sri Lanka. Its infamous fourth floor, used to interrogate suspects of terrorism, the long, narrow passageway at the entrance that everyone must pass through, would have different associations for minorities, and especially young Tamil women, Sekaram pointed out. Members of the LGBTIQ community might also shy away from reporting violations to the CID, fearing that it might invite further scrutiny, particularly due to Section 365 and 365a of Sri Lanka’s Penal Code, which criminalises same-sex conduct.

Those based outside Colombo must make the long journey to the CID in order to report the violence they have undergone – that is, if they are aware that there are bodies tasked to deal with the issue in the first place. The officers tasked with taking down case details often cause further trauma to survivors by the casual way they discuss survivor’s cases – which often includes implicitly shaming the person for sharing content online in the first place. All these factors ensure fewer people report cases.

These response mechanisms therefore continue to reflect the real world problem of the criminal justice system’s responses to women’s issues across the board. Online violence is just one point on this spectrum. A solely technical or technological solution therefore is not practical. Communities need to comprehend what justice looks like for survivors, and the factors that might keep survivors from seeking out this justice, participants at the discussion noted.

At times, there were shortfalls in the reporting mechanisms built into social media platforms, participants noted. For instance, content in Sinhala on Facebook, once reported, would often not be removed even when it contravened Community Standards. Facebook is training staff to identify inflammatory content flagged in Sinhala, and has committed to hiring more Sinhala speakers.

“Online spaces are far from black and white. They are often rife with contradictions. While standing in the space, people must be ready to negotiate and demand better,” Wijesiriwardene commented. As such, it was important that members of the LGBTIQ community for example continued to critique Facebook while using the platform, highlighting how the ‘real-name’ policy restricts queer expression online, Wijesiriwardene noted. “It is essential to be as vocal as we can while occupying the space.”

So what would a solution to technology-based violence look like? It might include more collaboration between digital security experts and community-based organisations, as one participant noted.

Another might be shifting attitudes through revamping the local education system.

Information Communication Technology is merely a subject, limited to the technicalities of programmes, machines and basic internet use, Sekaram pointed out. Yet, there is no education on responsible Internet use, and how to share content securely.

The lack of education on ethics online as well as on relationship education perpetuates this problem. Schools and teachers are reluctant to broach the topic of sex due to social taboos, and yet revenge porn is often shared by young schoolchildren. This may be because porn has become the default sex education tool in the absence of other educational material. Children who do find such material in their school syllabi notice that there is a gap in the conversations adults are willing to have with them. Bridging these gaps is important to ensure technology-based violence is addressed,

Globally, a new report by the Special Rapporteur to the Protection and Promotion of the Right of Freedom of Expression, David Kaye, noted that users of social media platforms flagged content promoting “violence and abuse against women, including physical threats, misogynist comments, the posting of non-consensual or fake intimate images and doxxing”. These disturbing patterns are consistent with those found during Groundviews’ research alongside Sri Lankan feminist initiative Ghosha and youth group Hashtag Generation into technology-based violence in Sri Lanka, and underscore the need for collaboration and innovative solutions, both online and off.

The trilingual wiki is live now, and can be found here.