When Priya’s boyfriend posted a nude photo of her online, he told her it would give her a confidence boost by making her an object of desire for other men.
Instead she felt powerless knowing that someone she loved had shared an intimate photo without her consent.
“He said all these people dream of having you but only I get to have you,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from Mumbai, not wanting to reveal her real name.
Priya’s story is all too common.
There has been a global rise in online harassment of women and girls in the past year, usually by abusive partners or ex-partners who are stuck at home in front of a screen due to coronavirus lockdowns, according to U.N. Women.
For Priya, it was the start of a series of privacy breaches as her boyfriend began to control her online presence.
“I was constantly walking on eggshells. It may not be physical violence but it would mean either I’m slut-shamed (for talking to people online) or I worried how my behaviour would trigger him which always meant trouble for me,” she said.
As worldwide restrictions push more people online, digital gender abuse is likely to worsen now that the internet is an absolute necessity and there is no escape from it, said Azmina Dhrodia, a senior researcher at the World Wide Web Foundation.
“The entire way you use the web has changed. It’s no longer seen as a luxury, it really is a lifeline for many of us. But with that comes certain risks, especially if you’re a woman,” said Dhrodia, who researches digital rights for women and girls.
Even before COVID-19, more than half of girls and young women had experienced online abuse, according to a global poll last year by the Web Foundation, an organisation co-founded by the inventor of the web, Tim Berners-Lee.
Sharing images, videos or private information without consent – known as doxxing – was the most concerning issue, according to the February survey of more than 8,000 respondents.
Dhrodia said online violence was a manifestation of existing discrimination that women face offline so it was not surprising that it has proliferated under COVID-19.
“It’s a hostile space and it’s become more hostile because we’re all online a little bit more,” she said.
Girls as young as eight have also been subject to abuse, with one in five young women quitting or reducing their use of social media, according to a survey in October by girls’ rights group Plan International.
Nearly half of girls targeted had been threatened with physical or sexual violence, according to the poll. Many said the abuse took a mental toll, and a quarter felt physically unsafe.
“It’s a sobering fact because if you think about how much work is being done in terms of digital inclusion and getting people online,” said Neema Iyer, head of Uganda-based digital rights group Pollicy.
Although more women are online than ever before, there were 17% fewer women than men with access to the internet worldwide, according to U.N. agency International Telecommunication Union.
“To think that after all this effort, women come online, experience violence and are pushed back offline. And that’s really the purpose – to silence women and to keep women in their place,” she said.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic abuse, had intensified, with shelters at capacity and helplines in some places seeing a five-fold rise in calls, U.N. Women says.
While many victims are targeted by vengeful former partners, others are singled out by strangers who hack their social media accounts to steal photos and information.
There has also been a surge in spyware, stalkerware and other online monitoring software, said New York-based lawyer Akhila Kolisetty, co-founder of End Cyber Abuse, which mostly works to tackle digital abuse in South Asia.
“As people are working at home, abusers are coercing people to share passwords, coercing people to share intimate images as part of an abusive relationship, or tracking someone’s activity online,” Kolisetty said.
It is an issue that led Indian artist Indu Harikumar to document online domestic violence last autumn, featuring Priya’s story as part of her art project.
“Someone actually told me that if people don’t share passwords in relationships then there’s something shady happening,” said Harikumar, who illustrated stories of digital abuse submitted anonymously by her Instagram followers.
Campaigners say online sexual harassment is difficult to regulate and is often only partially covered by legislation, which varies in each country, with researchers, lawyers and advocates worldwide working to plug legal gaps.
Human rights lawyer Kolisetty said India, Canada, England, Pakistan and Germany were among a small number of countries that have outlawed image-based sexual abuse, where private pictures are shared without consent.
But with technology advancing so rapidly, the laws are lagging, according to legal experts and advocates.
For example, many countries do not have laws for emerging forms of digital abuse like “deepfakes”, where a woman’s face can be superimposed onto a porn video and shared on messenging apps like WhatsApp or Telegram to shame them, Kolisetty said.
“In countries that don’t have a specific law, it can be very difficult for survivors to seek justice because police may not take their complaints seriously,” Kolisetty said.
Pollicy’s Iyer said she had spoken to women who were laughed at for reporting online abuse to the police. Even when there are laws, conservative attitudes could stop women speaking up.
“Maybe in the UK, if there’s a leak, someone might be embarrassed or upset but you might not take your life over it,” Iyer said.
“But in a conservative society, it could ruin your whole life – your job prospects, your ability to find a partner, to get married. People have taken their lives, they have left social spaces. It affects people in a very real way.”
In November, Bangladesh launched an all-woman police unit in a bid to get more women to come forward to report digital abuse including so-called revenge porn, the hacking of their social media accounts and online threats from blackmailers.
Social media platforms Facebook, which owns WhatsApp and Instagram, Twitter and Tik Tok, as well as video-conferencing app Zoom, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation they were committed to stamping out web harassment.
Zoom, which soared to 200 million daily users from 10 million in less than three months in the pandemic, had multiple reports of “zoombombing”, where strangers barge into private calls having gained access to a meeting invite.
When Zoombombers started infiltrating lectures and meetings to harass attendees with sexual content, sexist or racial slurs, Zoom said they tightened their security tools and worked closely with law enforcement.
“Zoom condemns behaviour of this nature in the strongest possible terms,” said a company spokesman.
Twitter said they too tweaked their safety features by allowing people to control who can reply to their conversations, and are proactively identifying abusive tweets and accounts instead of relying on reporting mechanisms.
Nearly two-thirds, or 64%, of women said they were harassed, mostly by strangers, on Twitter, while a quarter said they were abused on Facebook, said a September study by End Violence Against Women (EVAW) and anti-online abuse charity Glitch.
Facebook said it automatically hides offensive or bullying content, can prevent “revenge porn” from being circulated, and users can easily block or ignore unsolicited messages.
Yet nearly all respondents in the EVAW and Glitch report said their experiences of online abuse during COVID-19 were not properly addressed by the tech giants.
SENSE OF URGENCY
But that is because the health crisis itself has overshadowed all aspects of life, leaving gaps in the fight against digital abuse, said Caroline Sinders, a fellow at German internet institute, the Weizenbaum Institute for the Networked Society in Berlin.
“There’s actually not going to be a lot of online harassment discourse and that’s not good. It’s just that we’re in the middle of a massive crisis and that crisis obviously needs a lot of focus and attention,” said the user experience researcher.
Sinders, who has researched digital harassment for nearly a decade, said design systems and tools do not make it easy for victims to protect themselves.
She said users should be able to easily dig up abusive messages if they need to report it to the police or want to bring the case to court.
“Letting people build out a nuanced and robust report is key, so making it easier to surface submitted reports (to content moderators) in case a victim has to build a court case.”
As the COVID-19 crisis rolls into another year, and with it, the world’s deep-seated reliance on the web, women’s rights advocates are hopeful that tech companies, governments and authorities will prioritise tackling digital abuse.
“The pandemic has made people aware of the extent of online abuse and I think that awareness at least will enable a shift in laws and culture over the long term,” said Dhrodia.
“I don’t see this reliance on the web decreasing anytime soon. There really needs to be a sense of urgency around it.”