Online violence against women activists is skyrocketing, here is what investors can do to help

By Marwa Fatafta and Laura Okkonen, Access Now 

On January 24, 2022, the name Rana Ayyub, an Indian woman journalist and Washington Post columnist, started trending on Twitter. She had posted in solidarity with Yemen, calling out the Saudi-led coalition ravaging war on the country. Then the abuse started, and Rana was hit with a barrage of around 25,000 abusive tweets calling for her death and rape.

This recent ordeal follows years of misogynistic harassment and abuse directed against Ayyub — both online and offline. Outrageously, for her and many other women journalists and activists around the globe online violence, including harassment and abuse, online doxxing, and digital surveillance, have increasingly become the norm. Investors can help shift these entrenched dynamics to safeguard the work of human rights defenders.

A recent UN report surveying 901 journalists from 125 countries found that women journalists are under unprecedented levels of attack, with 73% of women respondents saying they experienced online violence. Over 2.5 million threatening posts on Facebook and Twitter were directed at two prominent women journalists: Nobel prize winner Maria Ressa in the Philippines and Carole Cadwalladr in the UK.

Such attacks are exacerbated in authoritarian contexts. Repressive governments deploy a combination of repressive digital  tools and tactics to belittle and intimidate women human rights defenders (HRDs) and journalists into silence. In 2022, Access Now and Front Line Defenders revealed the hacking of two women HRDs from Bahrain and Jordan using NSO Group’s notorious Pegasus spyware. This invasion of women’s lives follows a longer campaign of spying on activists, journalists, and HRDs facilitated by the spyware company NSO Group.

The use of targeted digital surveillance tools violates the right to privacy and the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. But the impact of digital surveillance on women is further traumatizing given how governments weaponize personal information extracted through spyware to intimidate and orchestrate coordinated public harassment and smear campaigns to tarnish their targets’ reputation. As put by one of the survivors, Ebtisam Al-Saegh, “personal freedoms are over for me, they no longer exist. I am not safe at home, on the street, or anywhere.”

Online gender-based violence, including targeted surveillance, often goes hand in hand with offline violence. Al-Saegh, who is an internationally respected Bahraini human rights defender, was subject to repeated harassment by the Bahraini government. She was detained, tortured, verbally abused, and sexually assaulted for her activism and human rights work.

While these attacks are often state-sanctioned, private tech companies are the driving force. To date, social media platforms have provided little more than lip service for the women who use their services, particularly women from marginalized backgrounds who experience the highest rate and severest forms of online abuse. While publicly committing to user safety and human rights, social media companies have repeatedly failed to respond to online abuse against women in a manner that indicates any semblance of urgency or responsibility.

Investors must use their influence to safeguard human rights

Companies and investors have  a responsibility under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) not to cause, contribute to, or be directly linked to human rights abuses through their operations. According to the UNGPs, companies  and investors must conduct human rights due diligence to identify and address  the potential and actual adverse human rights impacts linked to their operations. Investors must proactively build in human rights considerations in their risk assessments on all planned and current investments. Once these risks are identified, investors should consider their future or current investments in light of the actions portfolio companies take to mitigate risks, and push companies where they can to implement human rights respecting measures.

Though most investors may not have spyware or targeted surveillance tech firms in their portfolios, all investors should take the following steps to ensure that portfolio companies do their part to prevent and address digital harassment and surveillance of women. Specifically, investors should demand the following of portfolio companies:

      Ensure social media companies dedicate human and financial resources to swiftly respond to online attacks targeting women and LGBTQ+ people on their platforms. This is especially important for their  wider non-English user bases where resources are glaringly scarce.

       Develop policies to tackle online doxxing and provide clear and accessible reporting or escalation mechanisms for women users to report abuse or harassment on the platforms.

       In the case of targeted surveillance, push portfolio companies such as Apple and Facebook, whose products and platforms have been exploited by spyware and targeted surveillance tools, to take legal action against the surveillance firms.

       For companies that produce surveillance technologies, disclose a meaningful human rights policy and demonstrate how they take appropriate measures to conduct proper human rights risk assessments and due diligence for the sale or use of their services or products.

Investors should also:

       Engage with civil society and human rights organizations when conducting risk assessments on technology companies they are considering investing in to ensure the potential human rights risks are adequately assessed and addressed; and

       Carefully consider any investments on companies whose main business model focuses on surveillance technologies, even for assumed security purposes.

By undertaking these measures, investors can contribute to mitigating risks faced by women HRDs in both the digital space and physical world.