What is a feminist approach to research and documentation of online gender-based violence?

As we embark on a new year of #metoo and other forms of powerful testimonial movements such as #survivingRKelly, the wisdom shared in January’s Take Back the Tech!  Webinar was an important learning opportunity and reminder of how we can contribute to collective wellbeing and care in our movement.

Take Back the Tech! kicked off the New Year with a Reboot Webinar on documentation and reporting for researchers, journalists and feminist thinkers. Fundamental questions such as how do researchers and documenters of online gender-based violence (GBV) take collective care were posed to four expert women from across the globe. These experts, Indira Cornelio from #SeguridadDigital (the organisation #DigitalSecurity) in Mexico City, Tess Wandia from IHub in Kenya, Namita Aavriti from the Association for Progressive Communications’ Feminist Internet Research Network and Varyanne Sika from the Coalition for African Lesbians (CAL); all work with women who have faced tech-related violence. They shared how they embody and embed self care in their work and movement.

It was unanimously agreed that  feminist research and studies should be held to a higher standard regarding wellbeing and should be distinctly different from traditional research and studies. There should be clear intentions to not cause any further harm and the sole purpose of research cannot just be focused on testing hypothesis and leaving the participant. There must be careful and continued consideration of the wellbeing of participants, in other words, research and documentation should be predicated self care of everyone involved. Self care, is of course about individuals setting boundaries and protecting themselves. Varyanne shared an insightful comparison. Most jobs require protective clothing for their work to protect them from harm, researchers particularly when working in trauma or triggering situations like online GBV also need protective clothing. I completely agree and think this should be part of the duty of care employers, donors, universities, organisations and commissioners. Safeguarding policies should include self care and “protective clothing”.

All four experts agreed that from the very outset of a project centred around trauma it should be anticipated that this work will be opening up wounds for survivors. These may be wounds that survivors do not realise have not yet healed or been addressed. Collective self care is about ensuring our actions do not cause others harm. Step one is putting self care into practice for those you’re working with and embedding this as your organisation’s or project’s culture or way of working.  This includes how references are made in research, anonymity, questions you ask and how you ask them in interviews, dissemination of findings as well as understanding that consent is not static and can be withdrawn at any time.

During the webinar Tess reminded us that once you publish documentation of online violence on the internet whether it’s a piece of research or a clip of an interview, it will remain on the internet forever and survivors you’re working with will be labelled as the person who underwent this type of online abuse. It is therefore very important to manage expectations and provide as much  as possible about what could happen when the information is published.

I think it  is also important to explain to participants that not everyone will receive the project or piece the way it was intended it to be received. With online GBV becoming more organised there are internet users waiting to jump on such research and videos to cause further harm. This certainly doesn’t mean we should put down tools and stop working, no. However, taking back tech is a battle and  like any battle, we must understand and pre-empt the enemy’s strategy, particularly if you’re asking survivors to join you in battle.

Discussion during the webinar also included problematic behaviour on a macro level such as with large donors and the media. When it comes to grants and collective evidence of money used, the status quo is collective evidence such as photos and surveys which are frequently framed in such ways that re-emphasises victimhood. The media are notoriously known for portraying women as victims rather than survivors.

There is something to be said about women, particularly black women, being portrayed as a "victim" or someone with experience rather than expertise.  I am done entertaining that misconception and have refused to participate in interviews and research, regardless of how “shiny” the opportunity is.

There is also a danger that such coverage increases the fear of abuse, the fear of being trolled on Twitter and standing for public office, therefore censoring women from participating in online public spaces. It’s easier for comms, researchers and public affairs agencies to want to create the next viral video or piece of research of how awful online abuse is. This cannot come at the expense of  revictimisation and increasing the fear of online abuse.  What we actually need is more agencies and researchers to highlight the solutions and support campaigners, survivors and activists’ calls for change.

Indira emphasised the importance of listening and understanding the context as well as the different things that could be a worry to a participant. I wish we could discuss this more and look forward to future discussions on how we can be intersectional with our self care practice. Intersectionality allows us to understand that women with mulit-intersecting identities will be more vulnerable and in different ways, the Dalits in India and Afro Latinas in Latin America are less likely to have social capital, access to legal teams nor a trusting relationship with law enforcement.

I recently did an interview about Amnesty International’s new findings about black women’s awful experience on Twitter, it was found that black women are 84% more likely to face online abuse. On reflection after the webinar I realised that not only was I more at risk than others who spoke about the interview but the topic itself put me more at risk as I then faced harassment from white women. The situation has escalated where I now need legal counsel.  Although, this has been extremely exhausting to deal with on my own I’m also aware that I do have some social capital due to my stint in politics and my networks.

Harm (risk) assessments must be conducted when asking someone to participate in media interviews or at the very least a full conversation about risks.  These risk assessments and questions must be intersectional and framed around “not causing harm” and there must be a willingness from everyone who is part of the movement, in the institutions or the project, to mitigate these harms.

Author:  Seyi Akiwowo, Executive Director Glitch