Using Cutting-Edge Technology to Measure Global Perceptions of Gender-Based Violence Online

By Jonathan Tan, Data Science Intern at the World Bank

Online communities have emerged as a powerful tool for giving a voice to the marginalized. However, it also opens up opportunities for harmful behaviors that exist offline to be amplified in scale and reach. Online violence, in particular, is disproportionately targeted at women and minority groups. How do we measure these behaviors and their impact on online communities? And how can donors and implementers use that information to develop programs addressing this violence? In response to these questions, Paulina Rudnicka of the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI), Chai Senoy, of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Mercedes Fogarassy, RIWI Corp. entered into a public-private partnership to administer a large-scale online survey. Using RIWI’s global trend tracking technology, the survey received over 40,000 complete responses from respondents in 15 countries, and featured 17 questions on the “nature, prevalence, impacts, and responses to GBV online”. 

What is GBV? The speakers specifically define Gender-Based Violence (GBV) as “the use of the Internet to engage in activities that result in harm or suffering to a person or group of people online or offline because of their gender.” They noted that the definition was based heavily on text from the 1993 UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. They also noted that the declaration, and the human rights standards around it, predated the emergence of GBV online. Many online spaces have been designed with male users in mind by default, and consequently, the needs of female users have been systematically ignored.  

Why is it important? GBV online is often an extension of offline GBV that has been prevalent throughout history: it has roots in sexist behavior; reinforces existing gender inequalities; and is often trivialized by law enforcement officials. However, the online medium allows GBV to be easily scalable – online GBV exists wherever the internet reaches – and replicable, leading to disproportionately large impacts on targeted individuals. Outside of the direct impacts (e.g. with cyberbullying, blackmail, extortion, doxing), it often has persistent emotional and psychological impacts on its victims. Further, GBV often has a chilling effects on freedom of expression in terms of silencing and self-censorship, making its prevalence and impact particularly difficult to measure. 

What can we do? In order to formulate an effective response to GBV online, we need good data on people’s experiences online. It needs to be comprehensive, gender-disaggregated, and collected at national, regional, and global levels. On a broader level, states and firms can proactively prevent GBV online through human rights due diligence. 

Why was the survey special? The survey, with over 40,000 completed responses and 170,000 unique engagements in 15 countries, was the largest study on GBV online to date. The online-only survey was administered to any respondent with internet access; whereas most prior surveys focused primarily on respondents from developed countries, this survey focused on respondents from developing countries. Speed was a notable factor – the entire survey was completed within a week. Further, given the sensitive nature of the subject matter, respondents’ data privacy was prioritized: personal identifying information (PII) was not captured, and no history of having answered the anonymous survey was accessible to respondents after submission. 

How was this accomplished? RIWI was used to conduct the survey. RIWI takes advantage of inactive or abandoned registered, non-trademarked domains. When a user inadvertently lands on one of these domains, they have a random chance of stumbling into a RIWI survey. The user can choose to participate, while remaining anonymous. The respondent’s country, region, or sub-city level is auto-detected with precision through RIWI to deliver the survey in the appropriate language. RIWI provided the research team with correlations of significance and all unweighted and weighted data for validation.

What did the survey find? Among the most salient findings: 

  • 40% of respondents had felt not personally safe from harassment and violence while online, of whom 44% had experienced online violence due to their gender. 
  • Of the surveyed countries, India and Uganda reported the highest rates of GBV online (13% of all respondents), while Kazakhstan reported the lowest rates (6%). 
  • 42% of respondents reported not taking safety precautions online, such as customizing privacy settings on apps, turning off features like “share my location”, and being conscious about not sharing personally identifiable information online 
  • 85% of respondents that had experienced GBV online reported subsequently experiencing fear for their own safety, fear for someone close to them, feeling anxiety or depression, or reducing time online. 

What’s next? Subsequent rounds of the survey will include more than the original 15 countries. Further, since the original survey did not collect personal identifying information from respondents, subsequent rounds will supplement the original questions by collecting additional qualitative data.

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