Stories of sexting, sex tapes, online dating gone wrong and cyberbullying are all over social media and the news. However, these stories only begin to scratch the surface of online – or technology-facilitated – gender-based violence (GBV). With a wide range of online predatory behaviors essentially falling under one label, how do we define it? How can we begin to tackle the problem if we can’t grasp the full breadth of the problem?
The World Bank Group and the Sexual Violence Research Initiative (SVRI) has engaged the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) to develop a way to measure technology-facilitated GBV on a global scale. To do this, our team is in the beginning stages of developing a conceptual framework. The reasoning behind this initiative is that, in order to tackle a problem like online violence, we must first get to the root of the problem by understanding the many ways online violence manifests itself. As researchers, defining the problem provides us with the insights we need to determine how to approach and measure the problem. And if we can measure it, we can start testing solutions.
At first glance, technology-facilitated GBV seems relatively easy to interpret. However, as our team peeled back the layers through our literature search and many conversations with experts, we soon realized that the term encompasses a much broader set of online behaviors and experiences. As a result, we formulated our definition to be more inclusive and take into account the spectrum of intersectional interpretations of gender and violence, leaving us with countless variations of intent, motive, behavior and impact — each contextually defined and dependent on a specific set of cultural, religious and gendered norms.
Some of the stories of technology-facilitated GBV that we have come across in our initial research are all too common.
- The man who has recently gone through a breakup, who then posts an intimate video of his ex-partner, without consent, all over social media – and then uses it as blackmail;
- The man, living in a country where the LGBTQI community is ostracized and their activities outlawed, uses an online networking site to plan a meet-up with another community member – only to find that the police have infiltrated the site using a fake account and have passed his name along to anti-gay vigilantes who then find and severely beat him;
- The school girl who, having received repeated threats and humiliating messages from classmates through group chat platforms, becomes depressed, falls behind in her studies, transfers to another school or drops out altogether; or
- The woman whose recent blog post draws a slew of slanderous and threatening comments and, under the weight of emotional bludgeoning, she shuts down all her online accounts.
That said, scales and tools do exist that can be used to investigate certain facets of technology-facilitated GBV, such as the Cyber Psychological Abuse Scale, the Revised Cyber Bullying Inventory, the Cybervictimization Questionnaire and the Sexting Behaviors Scale. There is value in each of those tools. However, thus far, most of them have only been used to measure a specific subset of technology-facilitated GBV, and nearly the entirety of research on this topic is on in-school heterosexual cisgender adolescents in high-income countries. On a broader scale, it is essential to direct these tools and research efforts to low- and middle-income countries, and to more diverse populations—especially to individuals from minority or marginalized communities who experience many layers of abuse online.
In light of all of this, we are using our insights to formulate our conceptual framework of technology-facilitated GBV, which we hope will set the stage for developing valid and reliable measures that researchers can incorporate into their efforts to understand and counter GBV online. Through discussions with a Technical Advisory Group—which includes experts and researchers from all over the world—our goal is to validate this framework and discuss next research steps. By including the broad spectrum of behaviors that comprise technology-facilitated GBV, and acknowledging the experiences of all individuals who encounter violence online, we hope to create comprehensive measures that can be used by fellow researchers, programmers and policy-makers to further assess the prevalence and impact of technology-facilitated GBV on those who experience it. We also hope that our research will inform the work of stakeholders in the tech industry, who are a critical player in creating a safer, more inclusive online experience.