Could it be that the proverbial “Wild West” still exists? Looking at the proliferation of abuse, insults and even personal threats poured onto people exercising freedom of speech in the Internet every day, one might be forgiven for thinking there existed some sort of systemic license for aggression. It affects everyone, but, as it was true in the North America of 150 years ago, most of the perpetrators are men, and most of the victims, women. The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, in collaboration with the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Warsaw and as part of qualitative pilot studies on cyber-violence from the female perspective, has decided to encourage preventive action.

On December 11 and 12 two meetings were held related to the report “Cyber-violence against women”. It was compiled based upon an analysis of available legal tools and personal interviews with 18 women active on the Internet who had experienced online aggression and hostility (download the report [in Polish] here. Representatives of non-governmental organisations, governmental administrative bodies, law enforcement agencies, internet service intermediaries, academic communities and lawyers were invited to participate in the first expert discussion. The participants focused on the possibilities for countering sexist behaviour on the Internet, and development of the digital competences required to eliminate cyber-violence against women and effectively respond to cases of cyber-violence (including the issue of the responsibility of intermediaries).

In turn, the second conversation took place at the Warsaw WATCH DOCS festival in the form of a discussion entitled “Things you’d only say to a woman”. The debate was led by Tomasz Stawiszyński (of the quarterly Kwartalnik Przekrój, Radio TOK FM), and the panellists were: Joanna Scheuring-Wielgus, Member of Parliament (Nowoczesna/Modernity); Joanna Smetek (Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights) and Dr Sylwia Spurek, Deputy Human Rights Commissioner for Equal Treatment. The debate was combined with the premiere of the short campaign video "Niepokonana" (Invincible) prepared by the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi IS and production studio TANK, who supported the project.  Here we present the video and the key outcomes of the debate. 

Every day we witness violence on the web. It doesn’t only affect women, but the worst cases usually relate to women. Cyber-violence is not just about vocabulary, it is also attempts to put women beneath men and undermine their intelligence and their professional competence. “Invincible” has a clear message –  in it we condemn cyber-violence and encourage women to be stronger than the hate, as Maria Skłodowska-Curie was, to achieve their goals and ambitions, and be successful,” said Kamil Majewski, Creative Director of Saatchi & Saatchi IS. 


Psychological, social and legal aspects of the reponse to cases of cyber-violence

In terms of responding to incidents of cyber-violence, a range of problems were indicated in the prosecution of cyber-violence. Police representatives spoke of the difficulties in pursuing prosecutions due to the cross-border nature of the acts and the excessively prompt deletion of data by intermediaries. In turn, the representative of the Commissioner for Human Rights spoke about victims’ limited knowledge of how to report something to the police and about the huge number of reports regarding online posts and comments.

Here, a recommendation was made to create and increase user awareness of how to document and report cyber-violence and to extend intermediaries’ data-storage periods. Attention was also drawn to deficiencies in the functioning of the "notice and take down" procedure for removing illegal content. It was stressed that this should be modified to engage users more. It was suggested that, in order to question the credibility of a report of illegal content, the questioner should be obliged to reveal their identity. This would allow those submitting reports to potentially take court action.

It was also emphasised that there was a need to allow the ex officio prosecution of private complaint offenses on account of the public interest, which is related to the fact that the motive for the act is discrimination-based. This possibility currently exists, but should receive greater exposure. The same applies to the police monitoring of crimes with gender-discrimination-based motivations.

Both traditional and electronic media have a major role to play. It is necessary to fight the stereotypical representation of women in pop culture and support related progressive initiatives. In terms of social media, grassroots activities are extremely important, in the form of, for example, conversations on forums or in groups – especially when in practice self-regulation and the rules adopted by online intermediaries are, for now, not working.  

It is also worth emphasising the importance of solidarity and support for women who experience online attacks. This may slightly alleviate the negative effects of cyber-violence and stop women from withdrawing from active participation in public debate. The worst effects of cyber-violence are not only the traumatisation and intimidation of the victim, but also the forced "hate management", which can cause people to limit their activity or self-censor.   

On December 5, the evening radio broadcast of TOK FM on cyber-violence against women featured a conversation with Zuzanna Warso and Tomasz Stawiszyński. Polish language version.  Listen to the show at the TOK FM website.

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