My laptop is suffering a serious case of the pop ups and as a result I have the most random things appearing on my screen. What often appears are adverts on how to earn money from my laptop which smell very much like Ponzi schemes. However, one day a disturbing cartoon popped up on my screen.
It was of a man ripping off the underwear of a clearly terrified woman. On top of the cartoon was a button asking me to “begin game” and in one foul moment I had just witnessed an advert for an online rape game. Someone actually developed a multi-level, multi-player game about sexually assaulting women and loaded it online, asking players to travel the world ‘conquering women’.
This game is one of the many ways that the digital realm, although being a blessing in some ways, has been a curse to women. Despite allowing for women to come together and have conversations and build community it has also allowed the scum of the earth to coagulate in dark corners of the web.
The United Nations released documentation stating that internet access is “no longer a luxury” with fibre optics and other developments having the ability to greatly improve and affect people’s quality of life. According to economic analysts information technology (IT) spending will hit $150 billion dollars with the majority being spent within Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa.
It is also predicted that the mobile phone market will break the $ 5 billion mark by 2018. Internet penetration within Africa is at 28.6 per cent compared to the world average of 46.4 per cent meaning there is huge potential for growth within the continent.
According to internal statistics there are 1.49 billion active internet users every day, Whatsapp has over 900 million active users with over 1 million new registrations daily and Instagram has 100 million active users every day.
In light of this, various individuals and collectives (such as Take Back The Tech and Zawadi Nyongo) dealing with violence against women online state that it is on the rise. Jan Moolman, women’s rights programme project coordinator at Association for Progressive Communications (APC) of South Africa, stated that: Technology related violence is on the increase which extended to the realms of mobile phone usage which was emerging as the most common tool used to perpetrate technology related violence against women. A study conducted by APC found that 22 per cent of the 1,100 cases interviewed reported repeated violence. About 33 per cent complained of emotional violence, with 11 per cent reporting physical violence. The latter indicates that online violence is now facilitating physical violence offline, which is a very disturbing trend.
There are several ways violence against women manifests itself online. According to reports on online violence, women between the ages of 18- 34 are likely to experience cyber violence and the likelihood of being harassed is increased if the online profile name is overtly female.
The trending of #Mollis, an audio clip of what sounded like a woman being sexually assaulted which was circulated around Kenya and neighbouring countries, is another acute example of this problem.
This is compounded by the rise of revenge porn which is increasingly becoming a continent wide problem. The bodies of women have become trending topics on social media platforms such as twitter. Pictures women sent to their lovers as intimate gifts are constantly being splashed across the internet.
Taking back digital spaces. Photo: AWID
This can be seen in the case is of South African law student Pulane Lenkoe, whose naked body trended on twitter for three days straight after a naked picture of her was leaked. Even more disturbing were the famous people who declared themselves ‘fans’ of the young student as a result.
However, there is a way for victims to take action.
Social media law expert, Emma Sadleir, a media lawyer, said Lenkoe could possibly sue her ex partner for infringement of privacy, lay a charge of crimen injuria, or even get a protection order under the Protection from Harassment Act. However this is only within South Africa, in other African countries the law does not address this type of harassment.
There have also been a number of initiatives including the (albeit problematic) UN report on cyber violence, several online initiatives such as #TakeBackTheTech, blog posts such as the one published on Digital Ubuntu by Niara GreySwan and the work done by the APC. However, it has not been enough.
In 2015, leaked emails showed that Twitter CEO Dick was “frankly ashamed” of Twitter’s inability to deal with online abuse. He conceded that the microblogging site “sucked” at dealing with the matter of abuse and trolls.
Twitter then attempted to introduce new rules to combat revenge porn by banning the posting of “intimate photos or videos that were taken or distributed without the subject’s consent”. The popular image sharing platform Instagram also banned pictures that show nipples while Facebook has “rules on nudity”. However we have to ask – is it effective? Do these measures really protect women or simply police them?
Finally it’s important to understand that the violence online manifests offline. In Europe it is reported that online dating has led to a 450 per cent increase rape in five years. According to the report by the UK’s National Crime Agency’s serious crime analysis section, “the rise appeared to be the result of the increased popularity of online dating combined with ‘the behaviours and expectations fostered by an online environment.”
The online space needs to be understood not only for its promise but the threat it poses to women online and in real life because the two are interlinked. There is a huge risk faced by women online and the initiatives around violence against women need to evolve in order to include the digital realm because out there somewhere, someone is trying to create another multiplayer rape game.