Facebook in the era of #EnaZeda: A toxic or liberating platform for women?

Post in Arabic here

This blog post is written by Emna Sayadi of Access now and Salma Houerbi, MENA regional researcher of the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.
If you are a victim of gender-based violence in Tunisia please dial 1819 or consult the SOS website. You can also use the resources below to help improve your security online.

“Sometimes online is even more dangerous. Offline we know how to protect ourselves. We know about where not to go, signs of attacks to a demonstration, safe house, etc. We have indicators and tools. But online we don’t have that. We don’t know what we’ve agreed to, or who’s watching.” Interview with an activist from MENA

The #MeToo movement sparked a global phenomenon on social media of sharing personal experiences and expressing solidarity with victims of sexual harassment and abuse. Recently in Tunisia, thousands of women have participated in the #EnaZeda campaign, the Tunisian version of #MeToo, which rose in popularity following allegations of sexual harassment and public indecency against a newly sworn-in member of parliament.

To mark International Women’s Day, we are sharing lessons we have learned on the potential and limitations of social media as a platform for amplifying women’s voices and catalyzing the movement for equality in the digital era. 

Gender-based violence in Tunisia: this type of human rights abuse is taking new forms in digital spaces 

While the thousands of testimonies that women shared online have powerfully exposed the prevalence of sexual harassment in Tunisia, and demonstrated the need for the government to ensure there are legal remedies and psycho-social resources in place to protect Tunisian women, these testimonies also reveal new forms of gender-based violence currently emerging via Facebook — the social media platform with the most users in Tunisia. The spread of online gender-based violence constitutes a threat to those using social media as a platform to express their opinions, feelings, and views on diverse topics.

According to statistics published in 2018, the rate of women victims of sexual harassment reached 43.8% in Tunisia; 90% of women suffered such violence in the means of transport; 78.1% in public places and 75.4% in the workplace. More recently, Tunisian national institute for research on women CREDIF has conducted a study on violence against women in digital spaces, particularly on Facebook. The preliminary findings document a range of gender-based violence online in Tunisia, from the creation of “imposter” profiles to discredit, defame, and damage reputations to the spreading of private and explicit photos on social media and the publishing of pages, comments, or posts targeting women with gender-based hate (including misogynistic slurs, death threats, and threats of sexual violence).

In the past 6 months, according to feminist activist Amal Bint Nadia, several incidents have shown how violence against women is reproduced in digital spaces. Several users of the #EnaZeda Facebook group have reported receiving unwanted, harassing messages after sharing their testimonies online. Further, countless testimonies of #EnaZeda campaign members illustrate the rampant online harassment Tunisian women are currently experiencing on social media: from profiles sharing nudes on Facebook Messenger to strangers harassing women in the comment section. The #EnaZeda Facebook page has highlighted countless comments aiming to intimidate and threaten women who posted their testimonies online.

Facebook has also been used as a space to target Tunisian feminist activists and to lead defamatory shaming campaigns against women’s rights defenders. Back in 2017, feminist figure and head of the Individual Freedoms and Equality Committee (COLIBE) Bochra Belhaj Hmida was the subject of a massive social media attack following her submission of a list of recommendations on individual freedom in Tunisia. More recently, solidarity movement Falgatna denounced the digital campaign of defamation, stigmatization, and incitement to hatred against Tunisian women activists after women human rights defenders carried the coffin of deceased human rights figure Lina Ben Mhenni

Gender-based violence is prevalent in both the real world and in the digital world, and both Tunisia’s government and social media companies must take concrete action to address this widespread abuse. 

The Tunisian government must strengthen actions to combat tech-facilitated gender-based violence.

As the new Tunisian government redoubles commitments to strengthening equality, it should address the rampant online violence taking place on social media, which normalizes misogyny and reinforces systemic inequalities. While Tunisia’s recent law combating gender-based violence received high praise, it fails to mention digital violence.

In particular, the Ministry of Women and Family Affairs and the Ministry of Technology should lead efforts at the intersection of gender-based violence and online safety measures, and work to raise awareness of the harms of gender-based violence. 

Facebook must improve efforts to ensure its platform is a space free of violence for women.

While governments can play a strong role in combating gender-based violence, the issue cannot be solved by legal means alone.

Recalling the United Nations (U.N.) Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, social media companies have a specific responsibility to respect all human rights, including the right to non-discrimination. They must take concrete steps to ensure that their platform is free of violence.

Facebook has previously responded  to the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre regarding the civil society allegations  raised about  the platform’s role in amplifying hate speech and facilitating violence. The company reiterated  their commitments to tackling these challenges and to implementing and improving their policies through engaging with partners.  Increasing the dialogue between social media platforms and civil society groups across regions is an opportunity to better understand and tackle the manifestations  of violence in the digital space.

Facebook’s recent decision to establish an independent oversight board for content moderation decisions has been particularly welcomed by several civil society organisations and lauded by the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Facebook should ensure the board functions with full accountability and transparency, and that it can play a stronger role in integrating human rights principles and tackling gender-based violence.

The most important step in preventing gender-based violence is to stop it from happening in the first place. It is not acceptable in any form, and women have the right to express themselves fully and freely, both online and off. That said, women, gender-nonconforming individuals, and others who are marginalized are facing very real threats, and we are here to support you. 

Here are some tips to consider for keeping yourself safe while sharing your stories on Facebook:

Control what people see on your Facebook account. Remember that you could always control who sees what you share on Facebook. Every time you publish a post, you will get the chance to decide which audience to share it with. For more information on this, check this link.

Do not tag your location on posts. Facebook allows you to share your live location to let your friends and followers know exactly where you are when you post something. However, that could be a direct threat to your privacy, especially when you’re sharing something sensitive. Here is how you can avoid that feature.

Disable the facial recognition feature to avoid being unwantedly tagged in photos. Facebook uses facial recognition to match photos people post to your profile. Find out more about the feature and consider turning it off. 

Be mindful of other people’s privacy and safety. Do not tag anyone in a post, photo, or video without their consent.

Don’t be afraid to report suspicious accounts or activity. 

To report a post:

  • Click in the top right of the post.
  • Click Report post or Report photo.
  • Select the option that best describes the issue and follow the on-screen instructions.

To report a profile:

  • Go to the profile you want to report.
  • In the bottom right of the cover photo, click and select Report.
  • Follow the on-screen instructions.

You also have the option to block certain people from engaging with your content. Remember that you can always block any intruders or attackers when sharing your story. Here are the instructions to do so:

  • Head to the Facebook profile page of the person you want to add to your restricted list. 
  • Click on the “Friends” drop-down box that appears at the bottom right of their cover photo. 
  • Select the option “Add to another list.” Now, click on the “Restricted” setting that appears on the next menu.

Don’t assume everything is safe to share because a group is private. Private groups can play an important role in the #EnaZeda movement, especially for people who don’t want to share their stories on a public Facebook page. Individuals tend to trust private groups because they consider them a safe space to share sensitive or private stories with a restricted group, but being in a private group doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still be careful about what you share. Keep in mind that the privacy of that group could be jeopardized by any one of its members and that screenshots could also be taken. To know more about the Facebook policy towards group in general click on this link.

Keep your account secure. Even if you’re very careful about your Facebook privacy settings and follow all of the suggestions above, it won’t protect you if someone can access your account directly. If someone has (or can guess) your password, or has access to your email or phone to reset the password, they can log in to your account and see everything you’ve posted, your private groups, personal messages, and even reach out to your contacts to get more information.

  • Be careful about staying logged in on multiple devices. Don’t leave yourself logged in any phone, tablet, computer, or other places you access the internet if other people might also have access to that device. Here’s how to review where you’re currently logged in.
  • Enable two-factor authentication, and be sure to use a second factor that only you can access. We recommend an authenticator app (but be sure to only use this if nobody else has access to your phone) or a physical key you can keep safe.
  • Change your password, even if it’s already strong. You can check if your current password has been leaked and then follow this advice on creating a new one.
  • Verify that the email address and/or phone number on the account are correct, and that they are also secure. This is important to make sure someone else can’t change your password and access your account.
  • Be mindful of “phishing” attacks, where attackers attempt to get you to share your password, authentication code, and sensitive personal information, or to download malware.