This blogpost is part two of a two part series. Part one here.

Co-authored by Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi

The rise of technology, currently in its fourth revolution, has precipitated image-based abuse and online violence against women and girls. When misinformation and disinformation infiltrate the digital space, it spreads with horrifying speed in the absence of digital experts to detect, trace, identify and apprehend perpetrators. When weaponised in a gendered context, mis/disinformation is usually salacious, relies on sensationalism and attacks the survivor it is directed to or the situation it seeks to distort. 

Social media has demonstrated great potential to mobilise support against sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). On the other hand, it is viable mis/disinformation incendiaries that limit the collective impact of civil society actors and well-meaning individuals in eliminating SGBV. Social networking platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and messaging apps such as WhatsApp have significantly  contributed to the injustice experienced by survivors of SGBV. In the context of this discussion, Twitter notoriously comes to mind owing to its nature to disseminate information in real-time, catalyse online mob violence and silence countering narratives of survivors who dare to tell their stories. Amnesty International in its groundbreaking report, titled Toxic Twitter, articulates the failure of the social media giant to protect women from abuse and violations on the platforms despite several promises to do so. However, gendered disinformation is not exclusive to Twitter.

Tech-based Violence

In 2020, Ms Seyitan Babatayo made a complaint of sexual assault, against Mr Oladapo Daniel Oyebanjo, a famous musical artiste otherwise known as “D’banj”. The narrative surrounding this case led to many social media users taking sides with the alleged perpetrator, given his fame, thus labelling the survivor’s experience as false and a strategically orchestrated event aimed at ruining the artist’s image and destroying his legacy. Upon a Google search of the incident, an instant top result is an online publication that describes the survivor as “a beautiful Instagram and Twitter slay queen”. This description is problematic for many reasons, one of which is that the term “slay queen” in urban and social media usage has negative connotations for women. In addition to the description, the publication tactically attached select photos of the survivor that could inform negative bias against her by conservative readers who make up a good percentage of social media users in Nigeria.

This directly underscores the role of search engine platforms like Google in perpetuating harmful stereotypes. The fallout of this precipitated a series of mis/disinformed posts by social media users including influential figures, who maligned her character, picking apart her narrative of events and casting aspersions on the veracity of her allegations., Seyitan in a series of tweets recanted her allegations as a publicity stunt and went further to express support for the artist. It is not unusual for survivors of SGBV to recant their statement due to pressure and intimidation. Secure in the belief that the survivor is effectively intimidated, subdued and silenced from telling their stories and getting justice, the perpetrator’s narrative reigns supreme. The chilling result is that the survivor is mentally and emotionally drained, the sexual assault goes unreported; and the cycle of SGBV continues unchecked.

Victim Blaming

Another seminal case where mis/disinformation blocked access to justice is the 2019 case of Busola Dakolo, a renowned photographer who detailed how she was raped by Biodun Fatoyinbo, a religious leader and founder of a prominent church in Nigeria. In a society heavily influenced by religious orthodoxy, the default inclination was to side with the religious leader over the victim. The series of incidents that trailed her narrative fueled vicious attacks on Busola’s personality, and created loopholes in her story, predominantly, why she waited two decades to share her experience. It is essential to state here that survivors do not owe perfect nor prompt details of their abuse because trauma is processed differently by each and every survivor.

Busola and her husband, Timi Dakolo, were intimidated by the Nigerian Police Force, who invited them for questioning over “a case of criminal conspiracy, falsehood, mischief and threat to life” The Nigerian Police Force did not channel equal efforts towards investigating the rape allegations raised against Biodun Fatoyinbo by Busola. To compound issues, a High Court in Abuja, Nigeria, dismissed the claim of Busola Dakolo against Biodun Fatoyinbo, citing the matter as “empty and purely sentimental”. Judgement of the Court was delivered against the victim, and costs were awarded against her in favour of the perpetrator.

The constant bullying and character assassination of activists working on SGBV cases seeks to diminish their reputation and, inherently, the SGBV case. For instance, with the case against D’Banj, several known social media blogs and users, including the accused, consistently targeted activists working on the case, claiming there was a “feminist agenda” to witch-hunt “prominent men”. Many claimed that the interventions by activists were clearly for international recognition, including awards and financial benefits such as grants. 

In the case of Uwavera Omozuwa, the 22-year-old student of the University of Benin who was raped and killed in a church in Benin. Although the Nigeria Police Force was investigating the case, the public narrative held that the victim had an affair with the pastor of the said religious institution, and was killed for refusing to abort the pregnancy. Although this narrative was debunked, it eroded the dignity of the victim and public demand for justice.

Supporting Justice and Accountability

The Nigerian Government has a paramount role in countering  the effects of mis/disinformation by upholding the rule of law and creating avenues of refuge for survivors seeking justice. The government should take deliberate steps to introduce and or amend existing laws to capture the emerging forms of SGBV, including deepfakes and other AI enabled forms of SGBV. 

Also, the government must prioritise the promotion of digital literacy among law enforcement agents through periodic training, workshops and seminars to improve critical digital literacy skills to identify, trace, decipher and counter tech-enabled SGBV. This is equally tied to deconstructing the prevailing rhetoric on institutional responses to SGBV, and complicity in perpetrating crimes against survivors. This should be accompanied by the promotion and enforcement of ethical standards and regulations within justice systems that ensure survivors of SGBV have increased access to prompt help and support. 

The role of the individual in addressing mis/disinformation cannot be overstated. Individuals can by volunteering with civil society organisations (CSO) build their capacity and understanding of SGBV and surrounding justice issues. An enlightened individual is invaluable and can make a difference by spreading authentic and empowering information within their immediate community.

Individuals with substantial social media followers should be more mindful of the content they put out as they significantly influence the perspective of their followers. Last year, in 2020, the singer, Tobechukwu Okoh, who goes by the stage name “Peruzzi” was accused of rape, which he outrightly denied, aided by corroboration. This accusation was never investigated. However, upon a search history, he was discovered to have made a series of tweets a decade ago promoting rape, which he promptly deleted upon discovery. Harmful views that normalise rape and place survivors in a position that question the authenticity of their experience, further promote public desensitisation to survivors’ experiences and sexual violence in its entirety. Conscious steps to pinpoint mis/disinformation, call out mis/disinformation agents and their propaganda, fact-check and verify the authenticity of dubious information can be adopted to promote healthy conversations around consent, and prevention of sexual and gender-based violence.  

Media Accountability 

The media has a crucial role in eliminating sexual and gender-based violence and advancing access to justice. Media reports of SGBV typically focus on victims and survivors, often portrayed in a less empowering light. The stories of survivors should uplift and empower them over and above the abuser. Extreme care must be taken to ensure that the report does not re-victimize or re-traumatise the survivor. Also, the voices of women and sexual minorities must be heard and represented as sources of information, opinion and expertise in discussing SGBV and access to justice.

 The media must be deliberate about challenging gender stereotypes, particularly stereotypes that portray survivors of SGBV as immoral,  who contribute to the cause of the violations they suffer. This can be achieved by producing gender-transformative content that would empower people to speak up against SGBV and deter violations. Furthermore, the media must be sensitive about reporting “both sides” of the story in relation to SGBV to ensure that perpetrators are not given a platform to further discredit the survivors’ voices.

In addition, the media should not treat SGBV as an episodic event that wanes after the spotlight shifts; instead, it should incorporate it into its strategic objectives, which would be reflected in the overall media output. The media, through its influence, can apply adequate pressure on the government to repeal repressive laws and enact laws that guarantee access to justice for victims and survivors of SGBV.

Community-level Interventions

Civil society organisations should invest adequately in qualitative and quantitative research that examines the impact of gendered misinformation and disinformation in eliminating sexual and gender-based violence and advancing access to justice. There is a dearth of research in this regard which directly impacts the potential for effective intervention.

It is also crucial for CSOs to identify root causes and structures of gendered disinformation, particularly at the grassroots level. In addressing this, there is a need to facilitate the formation of grassroots networks that resist the threat of mis/disinformation at the community level. Such networks would be empowered to boldly and courageously influence social norms, break stereotypes and drive social change.

The civil society can equally galvanise financial support for technological developers who are keen on inventing human rights centred tech solutions that would preserve the dignity of users. Such interventions could include verification and authenticity infrastructure to counter manipulated media. WITNESS and our partners have embarked on the drafting of an access protocol for deepfakes detection tools, the development of a responsible, human rights respecting authenticity infrastructure and the development of user-friendly verification and accountability tools. 

Civil society can facilitate a link between reputable media organisations and potential funders. This is to ensure that organisations that prioritise a gender-responsive approach are sustained. 

In addition, civil society can also advocate for new laws and or the amendment of existing laws that would better protect people from digital-based SGBV. In the same vein, CSOs should push for the operationalisation of gender response departments within law enforcement operations. While ensuring that erring officers are brought to justice in a fair trial.

To change behaviour and to systematically dispel and nullify the impact of gendered disinformation, all hands must be on deck, including civil society. This should include deliberate and consistent mass sensitisation drives to remote villages to empower them to fight SGBV.

Equitable Tech

Technology platforms must center  human rights in the design, development and the deployment of technology. The deployment of non-consensual deepfake pornography is utterly reckless, and remains the most common form of deepfake that almost entirely targets women. Technology developers as a community must begin to introspect on the physical and psychological harm technology inflicts on society, particularly vulnerable groups. Just as other professional bodies have a binding code of conduct that regulates the profession, technologists must collectively develop ethical guidelines that would mitigate the irresponsible deployment of technology, which they should abide by. 

The tech community should invest equally in detection and verification tools to counter the perceived authenticity of deepfakes and other forms of manipulated media.

Social media platforms should urgently consider the response to sexual and gender-based violence as a priority and proactively mitigate the spread of gendered disinformation. Platforms should invest in language support in order to decipher code language and correctly flag content that propagates SGBV. These platforms should be transparent about the extent of sexual and gender-based violence on their platforms and how they respond to it.  This must include a responsive reporting mechanism that should include public labelling of abusers on the platform.

In addition, platforms should elevate the voices of gender rights advocates amidst the noise of misogyny and sexist narratives. Platforms must also introduce effective privacy and security tools and policies that would better protect users.

Importantly, social media platforms must prioritise in-app media literacy to foster a safe space for users, particularly women and other minorities.

Related resources

Nkem Agunwa is the Project Coordinator for Africa at WITNESS. Her focus is on countering the proliferation of mis/disinformation that incites violence and undermines the trustworthiness of video evidence. WIth almost a decade’s experience as a digital communications campaigner, Nkem has engaged extensively on freedom of expression, police brutality, democracy and good governance.

Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi is a gender equality advocate with seven (7) years of experience developing and implementing innovative strategies and programs. She is the Executive Director of Stand To End Rape (STER) Initiative, a youth-ld social justice organisation based in Nigeria. Oluwaseun Ayodeji is the first-ever 2020 Global Citizen Prize for Nigeria’s Hero, was recognised by the United Nations as a Young Leader for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Commonwealth Young Person for the Year 2019 and in the same year named as one of TIME’s 100 NEXT.

 

Published 20th December 2021.

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