The internet’s real virus: digital violence 

With advancements in AI and widespread use of technology, internet attacks plague communities.

(Arielle Rizal / Daily Trojan)

In light of recent events, Rho Bashe being assaulted with a brick after rejecting a man’s advances earlier this month, the talk of safety as a woman has taken over social media. From Mace to the buddy system, there seems to be an ever-growing list of how a woman must keep herself safe when alone. But safety doesn’t just exist offline — women experience staggering levels of digital violence every day. 

Technology is a double-edged sword — especially for women. Social media, in particular, can empower women through movements like #IWillGoOut or #MeToo, both of which brought issues women experience in everyday life to light. Furthermore, there’s an opportunity to build communities, start businesses or learn new skills. But for all the pros to social media, there are more than a few cons, including online violence. 

A study by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 2022 found that 73% of women have experienced online violence. Online violence stems from gender-based violence, in which technology is used for threats of physical or sexual violence, including spreading reputation-harming lies, electronic sabotage, non-consensual distribution of intimate content, doxing or trolling. 

Doxing refers to searching for and publishing private information about an individual on the internet with malicious intent. Similarly, trolling refers to when a person intentionally instigates conflict, hostility or arguments in an online community. The Council of Europe reported women of marginalized communities, such as women of color, those of minority religions and those who identify as LGBTQIA+, may experience gender-based violence more frequently.

No matter the form of gender-based violence, the impacts are catastrophic. 

For example, 2020 was a tumultuous year because of the coronavirus pandemic, which resulted in internet users going from 4.1 billion in 2019 to 4.6 billion by 2021. With many institutions and businesses closed, they turned to Zoom to continue operations, amassing nearly 485 million users daily by April 2020. 

Research from Ryerson University reported trends of “Zoom bombing,” a form of harassment in which an individual posts offensive or shocking content to disrupt virtual meetings. Of the Zoom bombings posted to YouTube, 25% were race-based attacks, 43% were based in misogyny and 14% consisted of sexuality-based attacks. Most of these Zoom bombings took place in women teachers’ classrooms. 

However, Zoom is not the online platform that has since been forced to take precautions against internet attacks; popular social media applications such as X — formerly known as Twitter —  Instagram and Facebook allow users to block, mute, restrict or report users or posts they do not want to see. But as technology advances, so must these precautions. 

Artificial intelligence is seemingly taking over the internet. From Siri to ChatGPT, navigating a new era of technology is difficult, especially regarding women’s safety. AI-enabled images that falsely impose women’s likenesses onto photos or videos, often depicted in compromising or violent situations, are called deepfakes. 

Sensity AI, an organization that monitors the number of deepfakes online, found thousands of deepfakes featuring celebrities, public figures and everyday people. Sensity AI also finds that 90 to 95% of all online deepfakes are non-consensual intimate media, and 90% of those feature women. Deepfakes are another form of gender-based violence that aims to harness technology to humiliate and harass women, stripping them of their sexual autonomy and consent. 

The United States is still attempting to find ways to regulate this content. While there are no federal laws regarding deepfakes, so far nine states have taken action to control the content. California in particular in 2019 passed AB730, which bans the use of deepfakes to influence elections.

Technology has a long way to go before we can confidently say the internet is safe for women. The dangers women face on various platforms are still prevalent issues that seem to grow and evolve as quickly as technology advances. Society, technology companies and lawmakers must continue to advocate and strive for a safer internet experience.

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