Social Media and Violence Against Women: A Case of India #RightsCon

Priya Kumar with Tara Denham, Director, Democracy Unit, Global Affairs Canada

How can we use social media data to help us to better understand the growing and constantly evolving phenomenon of online violence against women? This is the question that the organizers of the panel on “Global Perspectives on Technology Facilitated Violence against Women and Girls” asked Dr. Priya Kumar, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Social Media Lab to address early this month as part of her participation at RightsCon, the world’s leading conference on digital human rights. The conference brings together technologists, researchers, business leaders, governing bodies, policymakers, and civil society from across the globe to address critical issues at the intersection of human rights, technology, and new media.

Dr. Kumar was invited to share insights and empirical research from a Global Affairs Canada funded project that the lab recently completed called “Mapping Online Violence Against Women: A Case of India”. The exploratory study used quantitative and qualitative methodologies to assess the prevalence and types of online harassment on Twitter, focusing on a sample of 101 Indian women of influence including politicians, celebrities, business moguls, journalists, and other public figures. Based on the analysis of over 1 million public tweets mentioning one or more of the women in our sample, we found most flagged instances of online violence and harassment were rarely directed to a single woman, rather, posters usually directed their vitriol to multiple people or user accounts. This was most frequently in response to headline news and legislative policy updates involving our sample of women, including those with professional careers where engaging with audiences in social media has become expected as common practice.

During panel Q&A, Dr. Kumar pointed out that in addition to explicit insults and blatant forms of gendered sexual harassment, South Asian women public figures are especially susceptible to Islamophobia and ‘weaponized’ ethno-religious slurs in open, online environments. Recognizing the dangers of gender-based self-censorship, the goal of this project is to provide research-based evidence for policymakers, researchers, and social media platforms working on addressing current knowledge gaps and challenges associated with online violence against women.

As part of this project, the Social Media Lab also consulted with Global Affairs Canada on the drafting of the newly released Playbook for Gender Equality in the Digital Age. The Playbook was developed by the Digital Inclusion Lab at Global Affairs Canada. The purpose of the Playbook is to document and put forth a set of best practices based on empirical insights to support gender equality in digital contexts. You can download a copy of the Playbook here.