“….people who may be in abusive relationships are forced into even closer proximity to their abusers..”
Responding to digital violence in pandemics: how to take action during Covid-19. Authored by Prof. Tim UNWIN
Digital violence comes in many forms, and is often defined rather broadly to include most aspects of abuse through digital technologies. These are all important, and it is essential to recognise the significant psychological harm that is indeed caused by digital technologies. However, this short note focuses primarily on the traditional meaning of violence as referring to physical force, and therefore specifically addresses the implications of the use of digital technologies to cause actual physical harm to people during the Covid-19 pandemic. The most important thing to recognise is that the conditions imposed to reduce the spread of the new coronavirus, such as lockdowns and new forms of surveillance, are leading to a significant increase in digital violence for two main reasons: first, people who may be in abusive relationships are forced into even closer proximity to their abusers; and, second, people with a propensity to abuse and harass others find themselves with more time on their hands to use digital technologies for such purposes.
The most important point to emphasise for individuals and governments is that it is possible to do things to prevent and reduce the potential for such harm. Digital technologies serve dramatically to increase the extent and speed through which things happen, and can therefore be used very positively in pandemics to enable work to continue and for friends and family to keep in contact. However, they can also be used explicitly and deliberately to exacerbate abuse, harassment and physical harm. Whilst this is most frequently against women, it is important to remember that men also suffer from it. Digital violence occurs all the time, but is increased by the opportunities provided by a lockdown, which mean that the usual strategies adopted by people to limit or avoid it become much more difficult during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Three broad types of digital violence are exacerbated during the lockdowns that have been imposed in response to Covid-19:
1.Violence resulting from the ways through which people use digital tech:
✓An abusive person might physically beat their partner as a means of controlling them when they use their ‘phone to chat with friends.
✓A family member might beat or “kill for honour” a female member of their family because of images that have been shared online.
2. Online abuse and harassment leading to violence:
✓ Some people stuck at home with little else to do get pleasure from harassing others, especially women, leading the victim to self-abuse physically or even to commit suicide.
3. Online violence
✓ There is already much violent material available online, with numerous images of people being mutilated and killed available for people to watch when they are stuck at home with little else to do. The long-term psychological implications of this are controversial, but it may well incite such people to become more violent themselves.
✓ Videos of sexual violence against children are already commonplace, and there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that the production of these has already increased during Covid-19.
Many actions can be taken by individuals and governments to reduce and prevent such digital violence. They are not all available everywhere, but some examples and links that can help to reduce all of the above three types of digital violence are given below.
Individual actions for survivors
Existing good practices and advice need to be followed even more carefully and diligently during the lockdowns associated with the pandemic:
✓ If you are in a dangerous and abusive relationship try to escape from it. In many countries domestic abuse victims are permitted to leave home during the lockdown.
✓ Take extra precautions over digital security
§ Protect all of your digital devices with passwords and “anti-virus” software.
§ Only use apps that are known to be as secure as possible.
§ Regularly delete your messages and un-necessary files.
✓ Never, ever respond to harassing messages or trolling(however tempted you are to tell those who are harassing you to stop).
✓ Report any cases of digital tech leading to physical harm to the relevant authorities(remember, it is not your fault).
✓ Use relevant helplines for adults and children if these are available(sometimes these have special codewords, or tapping options, to let you share information without fear of someone listening in).
✓ Block all of the numbers used by the person harassing you.
✓ Don’t ever share personal images unless you wouldn’t mine anyone else seeing them in the future.
✓ Share your experiences with trusted friends and family if possible (don’t bottle things up inside; sharing can help reduce the pain and unhappiness)
✓ Don’t respond to social media friend requests unless you know the person.
✓ Be cautious of using apps through which you can be surveilled(because an abuser might gain access to them in order further to harm you)
✓ If nothing else helps,change your digital identity and take a break from social media (get a new phone number, and change your social media accounts — or better still get a real life and give digital a break for a few months; you will survive)
Governments must create safe environments
There are many actions that governments (national and local) can do to help reduce the prevalence of digital violence during pandemics. These build on existing good practices, but some of the most important actions include:
✓ Treating digital violence seriously as a criminal offence.
✓ Making it clear that victims of violence and abuse need not obey lockdowns.
✓ Providingshort-term financial support and sheltered accommodationfor victims of violence during a pandemic lockdown.
✓ Ensuring there are well known, easy to access and trusted helplinesto provide advice to those suffering from digital violence (both online and through telephone numbers).
✓ Adhering to legislation against all forms of digital violence, abuse and harassment, andensuring that perpetrators are brought to justice– especially when police forces are already stretched during a pandemic.
✓ Runningpublicity campaigns during the Covid-19 pandemicto inform the public about ways of responding to digital violence.
✓ Reinforcingexisting good advice for governmentsto follow in reducing violence against women and girls in general.
✓ Avoiding imposing new surveillance appsand mechanisms that might make vulnerable people even more vulnerable to violent abuse.
Working together, we can do much to reduce the horrors of digital violence, but all of us must act collectively. If you see or suspect digital violence never ignore it. Take action, and help to support some of the poorest and most marginalised across the world.
The author Professor Tim Unwin CMG is Chairholder of the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D and Emeritus Professor of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. His research and practice focus primarily on ways through which digital technologies can be used by the poorest and most marginalised to enhance their lives. He is also co-founder of TEQtogether, and trained in safeguarding, especially in ways of preventing domestic abuse.