Gender discrimination and violence in social media


Gender discrimination and violence in social media


Date: May 26 (Wed.) 2021, 14:00-16:00

Location: Online service only

•Kevin Chang, Secretary-General, Women in Digital Initiative
•Ya-Ching Li, member, Gender equality education committee
•Tsui-Feng Lin, counseling psychologist, Heart Ware Clinic
•Pei-Shan Tsai, prosecutor, Department of Prosecutorial Affairs, Ministry of Justice
•Sheng-Feng Dai, Professor, Department and Graduate Institute of Criminology, National Chung Cheng University

Session details

According to Cyber Violence against Women and Girls published by UN Women, there are six broad categories that encompass forms of cyber violence against women and girls (VAWG). They are hacking, impersonation, surveillance/tracking, harassment/spamming, recruitment, and malicious distribution. Another survey from Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation shows that 10% of the Tawainese have suffered from personal photos/video leakage, with 90% of the victims being female. 

Internet should be a free and open space where every person’s freedom of speech is fully protected. However, a lot of people exploit this freedom and use it to inflict harm on women and girls. On the one hand, the Internet and social media fuel and exacerbate gender violence; on the other hand, they present new opportunities and enabled various efforts to address this unhealthy trend. In this session, the Taiwanese community will discuss the education and communication needed to counter a wide range of gender violence online.

Millions of women and girls around the world are subjected to deliberate violence because of their gender. On top of that, we should also pay attention to the violence targeting minority groups who don’t conform to gender stereotypes.


The session started with an overall introduction from the moderator, Kevin Chang, about how gender-based violence and discrimination are infiltrating the social media and online space. This is a global phenomenon, but the discussion today would focus on Taiwan. According to a survey conducted recently by foreign media, domestic violence—either verbal or physical—has at least doubled since the corona outbreak. Additionally, people have been spending much more time online due to the pandemic, which also led to the increasing prevalence of online violence and harassment.  

An old advertisement slogan would ring a bell with every Taiwanese born around and before the 90s: ‘technology always stems from humanity.’ Quoting this slogan, Kevin pointed out that humanity has both bright and dark sides, which means technology, when manipulated by those with malice, can cause harm not only online but also in the real world.

He elaborated on the double-bladed nature of digital communication technology. The technology provides instant, anonymous, and interactive communication; it spreads words and ideas much faster, easier, and without borders. On top of that, everything, once got online, is almost impossible to eliminate. Some might argue these features are the benefits of digital communication technology. However, these features also make it much more difficult to track down the bad guys and delete harmful content. In other words, it is much harder to discipline, mitigate, and publish the bad actors enabled by digital communication technology.

Is there a definition of digital gender violence?

The Association of Progressive Communications (APC) defines gender-based violence online as ‘acts of gender-based violence that are committed, abetted or aggravated, in part or fully, by the use of information and communication technologies [ICTs], such as mobile phones, the internet, social media platforms, and emails.’ 

The general recommendation no. 35, an update to the recommendation no. 19 of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), although short of a distinct definition, suggests that ‘gender-based violence against women occurs in all spaces and spheres of human interaction, whether public or private. These include the family, the community, the public spaces, the workplace, leisure, politics, sport, health services, educational settings and their redefinition through technology-mediated environments, such as contemporary forms of violence occurring in the Internet and digital spaces.’ (emphasis by the author)

In Taiwan, the Gender Equality Committee of the Executive Yuan also provides guidance on the definition, types, and significance of digital/online gender violence. The guidance, however, was not written in an easily comprehensible way due to its juridical and bureaucratic nature.

Women in Digital Initiative (WIDI) develops an easy guide explaining digital gender violence in laymen’s terms. According to this guide, there are five categories of digital gender violence: 1) gender-based violation of privacy, 2) gender-based hate speech and conducts, 3) digital sexual harassment and virtual rape, 4) digital human trafficking and sexual exploitation, and 5) abuse based on images and videos.  

  • gender-based violation of privacy

When an abuser (a) invades, holds and controls the victim’s privacy information; (b) reveals the victim’s personal information against the victim’s wishes; or (c) counterfeit or defraud the victim’s identity.

Common examples of gender-based violation of privacy include cyber manhunt and doxxing, digital stalking and harassment, illegally hacking and stealing personal data, violating people’s sexual privacy using technology (e.g., videotaping sexual private moments), Internet of Things (IoT) related domestic violence (e.g., surveying one’s partner using smart home devices), and false personation online.  

  • gender-based hate speech and conducts

This can happen when an abuser encourages and promotes violent acts and hate speech against a specific individual or group of people, or even threatening to impose sexual violence upon them. 

Examples include hate speech targeting people with certain ‘idiosyncracies’ (e.g., men portray feminine qualities), death or rape threats against individuals, and promotion of sexual violence against a certain group of people. This is often found in male-dominated online communities when they share ‘jokes’ about ‘women behave only after being beaten up.’

  • digital sexual harassment and virtual rape

Abusers sexually harass the victims utilizing digital technology or via the Internet, or raping the victims in virtual settings.

For example, spreading sexually inappropriate images via airdrop in public space; sending sexually improper or harassing messages/images via texts, emails, or private messages on social media platforms; raping the victim’s virtual identity in online games.

  • digital human trafficking and sexual exploitation

Human trafficking and sexual exploitation enabled by the Internet and general digital technology. Managing or supervising illegal sex trade with ICT-enabled means.

Examples can be found in inveigling sex workers online, controlling/exploiting sex workers by holding and threatening to spread their private sexual images/videos, utilizing digital currency to conduct sex trades.

  • abuse based on images and videos

This happens when the abuser possesses the victim’s private sexual images/videos using digital technology/Internet and (a) threatens or extorts to spread the said images/vide; (b) distribute the said images/videos without the victim’s consent. It can only happen when the abuser uses digital technology, for example, AI or deepfake, to make fraudulent sexual images or videos of the victim.

After a long and thorough introduction, the penal discussion started.

First of all, the panelists were asked to share their experiences and takeaways on this issue. Ya-Ching Li is a teacher in elementary school. She agreed that the Internet has significantly worsened gender violence and discrimination due to its anonymous, convenient, and consistent nature. As a counseling psychologist, Tsui-Feng Lin tried to analyze the psychology of gender-based violence online. She recognized that voyeurism is human nature and argued that the ‘invisible cloak’ bestowed by the Internet to its users inevitably emboldens the bad actors to cross the line from peeping to practice.

According to Lin, there’s a difference between digital gender violence conducted by strangers or someone the victim knows. However, she did not have the chance to elaborate on what and how makes of the differences due to the time constraint. She agrees that gender-based violence enabled by digital technology inflicts the same level of, if not higher, harms to the victims.

Victims can suffer from low self-esteem and serious depression as a result, and Lin urges us to address and tackle gender violence online as a social issue more seriously than we are now. The general public should pay more attention to this problem, and we should actively explore ways of constructing a safer Internet for all users. Of course, it can not be stressed enough that the culture of blaming the victim is not only ignorant but also harmful.

Every time when we have conversations about issues in the digital world, people complain about how legislative effort is lagging far behind the pace of technology advancement. Professor Sheng-Feng Tai explained why gender-based violence and crimes have surged from a criminological psychology perspective as digital technology becomes quintessential. According to Prof. Tai, people still evaluate the circumstances and make rational judgments when committing crimes. This means that they will assess the cost, the gain, and the risks before committing crimes.

Tai explained that the cost of gender-based violence online—due to its anonymous and instant nature—is extremely low. For the bad actors, the satisfaction of attacking and demean women online is an easy gain with little to almost no cost or risk. The reward of simply clicking and typing is instant and infinite, despite not substantial. Following this theory, Prof. Tai argued that we have to find ways to increase the cost or reduce the gain—in other words, make online gender violence less ‘cost-effective’—to prevent and discourage gender-based violence in digital form.

A prosecutor in practice, Pei-Shan Tsai shared how law enforcement deals with digital gender violence in the real world. While it remains true that the majority of victims from gender-based violence are female, Tsai pointed out that the ratio of male victims has increased in the past years, making up around 13% to 16% of the total cases. It is especially challenging for men to acknowledge the fact that they have become the victim of gender violence or sexual crimes.

In legal practice, many factors can influence how a case is proceeded and executed. For example, whether the victim is a minor or an adult can make a huge difference. According to Tsai, Taiwanese law provides better and more comprehensive protection to underaged victims of sexual crimes. Similar protection is relatively lacking if the victims are adults. Additionally, whether the suspect committed the offense intentionally or negligently can also affect how the case is deemed to proceed.

Commenting on the point of increasing numbers of male victims, Li worried that the intolerance of ‘different’ gender expressions in the household and school is one of the main reasons why boys and men are reluctant to admit being victims of gender violence or sexual crimes. Sometimes the fear is double-layered. The victims are not only afraid of acknowledging the fact of being harmed but also timid of the aftermath—being forced out of the closet.

The panelists also discussed the toxic culture of blaming the victims. From her counseling experience, Lin has seen many cases where friends and family hurt the victims ‘again’ by saying things such as ‘you should have been more careful’ and ‘how come you did not notice?’ These words sometimes are more harmful than the original crime/violence. People often excuse themselves by claiming that they ‘meant well,’ but Lin stressed that instead of ‘well-meaning’ advices, what the victims need are actually simply a pair of ears and knowing that you will always be there for her/him.

From a psychological perspective, sexuality and sexual practice can often be seen as the demonstration of one’s character and mental state. That is why Lin stressed that offenders of gender violence also need counseling sessions. The importance of proper and comprehensive sex education can not be overemphasized.

All panelists agreed that a more draconian law is not what we need to deter gender-based violence or sexual crimes. How to develop and enforce the law in a more comprehensive manner is indeed an important issue and one we have to tackle seriously. Still, the law is by no means the only means to the end of curbing recommitment. As suggested by many during the penal discussion, education is the key. We need education at every front to foster a healthy and appropriate attitude to sex, preventing offenders from becoming offenders and therefore protecting victims from becoming victims.

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