Societal-level impacts of online violence against women and girls

What do we know about the economic cost of online VAWG? How are social norms around violence against women changing as a result of behaviours and discourse online? How does online VAWG impact on political and civic spaces? What is the evidence on the links between online VAWG, conflict dynamics and violent extremism?

Online violence against women and girls (VAWG) has costs to individuals and their families, to businesses, and to the wider society and economy. For example, research3 in Australia estimated that the cost of online harassment and cyberhate is $3.7 billion (£2.1 billion pounds) in health costs and lost income. However, most studies are based in high-income countries and not gender-disaggregated. Few VAWG studies specifically consider online forms of VAWG.

Harmful online discourse and behaviour both reflects and amplifies the same social norms that underpin other forms of violence against women and girls, often in racist and discriminatory ways.4 There is an evidence gap in the measurement of the impact on social norms, and the development of tools to measure norms is at a nascent stage. Emerging evidence suggests that harmful online discourse and behaviour is changing social norms that: (1) maintain and tolerate sexual violence; (2) encourage impunity and a lack of social sanctions; and (3) reduce female participation in civic discourse. The impact on social norms is exacerbated by the way in which which technology platforms are designed and who takes the decisions, including use of algorithms, anonymity of online spaces, the role of content moderators, amongst others

Online VAWG has significant consequences for political and civic spaces, threatening women’s right to participate in public and political life. Impacts include female politicians stepping down from political office or campaigns,5 discouraging women from standing for office, causing women journalists and activists to self-censor or step away from reporting and advocacy.6 Violence targeted at women from marginalised backgrounds, younger women, women with disabilities and from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) community also limits the diversity of voices in public discourse.7 Gendered disinformation have also been used to “incite moral panics in the targeted populations” and increase “distrust in the ideas of multiculturalism, tolerance, feminism and liberalism”.8 These campaigns form narratives that go beyond attacks on individual women, to attacking the broader rights of women.

There is growing evidence that online VAWG is being committed systematically by the State and others within conflict contexts, fueled by and fueling violent conflict. It is often targeted towards women from marginalised groups, increasing tensions that can lead to violent conflict. As a result of the links between online VAWG and violent conflict, it is now being recommended as a gender-sensitive early warning indicator for conflict. Online VAWG is also likely to pose a barrier to women’s participation in peace negotiations, increasing the likelihood that peace treaties will fail to accommodate the needs of women.9

Online VAWG is also associated with support for and perpetration of violent extremism. Research undertaken in Indonesia, Bangladesh and the Philippines found that individuals who support VAWG are three times more likely to support violent extremism. Most evidence comes from the Global North and points to the growing risks of violent extremism from the Incel (involuntary celibacy) ideology.

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