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  • Writer's pictureAfghan Witness

'Violence behind a screen': Event Recap

Afghan Witness reflects on some of the key takeaways of the project’s event on 21 November 2023 with Shaharzad Akbar, Francesca Gentile and Nina Jankowicz. How has online abuse affected Afghan women and what can be done about it?



This week, Afghan Witness released an investigation that uncovers the hate speech and abuse politically engaged Afghan women face online, and how this has increased in the last two years since the Taliban takeover. 


To mark the release of this report and discuss its findings, we brought together the expert voices of Rawadari’s Shaharzad Akbar, CIR’s Nina Jankowicz and Afghan Witness’ lead researcher and report author, Francesca Gentile. 


Key findings from the report include a tripling (217%) in abusive posts – often sexualised in nature — between the period June-December 2021 to the same period in 2022. As a result of qualitative consultation with women affected, the investigation reveals the devastating impacts on their mental health, and the silencing effect this abuse has for those who experience it, both online and offline. The investigation also offers five recommendations that broadly cover platform accountability, research needs, language capabilities for tech to track this type of violence, education, and network and resilience building for those experiencing abuse. An executive summary, recommendations, and the report itself, can be viewed here.


Re-traumatisation and the need to tread thoughtfully


The environment of threatening and silencing women permeates both the online and offline space in Afghanistan, amplifying the experience of those who suffer this sort of abuse. The immense social pressure female Afghan activists face as a result of this abuse, due to cultural norms and expectations, only adds to the gravity of their experience — 


“It creates a sense of shame, of social shame and social pressure… if you are being labelled as a whore, in the Afghan context… there is extreme pressure on you to stop what you are doing, to protect yourself from this kind of abuse, for you and your family. There are multiple levels of pressure. It’s hard to do this research without re-traumatisation.” — Shaharzad Akbar, Rawadari

In this sense, Afghanistan is a magnified example of how intentional targeting to try and silence women’s voices affects the women who experience it. These ‘levels of pressure’ (intentional targeting coupled with the pressure of social and cultural expectations) increase the risk of re-traumatisation, but, at the same time, this type of research is deeply needed as it enables those who experience this abuse to both be and feel seen, and for individuals, organisations and governments to pursue mechanisms for change. 


Research of this kind can and should be conducted in a way that ensures those who have been affected by this abuse aren’t re-traumatised, but this is particularly difficult to achieve when considering the online space, as a user has limited control over what they see and hear as a result of algorithms and notifications.


To limit re-traumatisation as much as possible, navigating this research must be done thoughtfully and in consultation with the affected community. This is how Afghan Witness approached the Gender Hate Speech report, along with anonymising interviewees and blurring images where necessary.  


Who are the actors and why is this abuse happening?


It’s interesting — and was noted by the panel as unsurprising — that much of the abuse stems from pro-Taliban and ‘low-level-Taliban’ accounts. It is notable too that the timing of this abuse often spiked in line with responses to enacted restrictions of women’s civic rights carried out by the Taliban: meaning women who tried to speak out on issues such as the closures of their schools or meeting places, would swiftly be trolled online in an effort to, in essence, silence dissent.  


Of course, this kind of abuse against women is a critical problem around the world and is by no means limited to Afghanistan. As noted, though, in the context of a country where women’s civic freedoms are so gravely limited by the group in power, and the main perpetrators of this violence are members or supporters of that group, the online and offline effects on the women targeted, are compounded. 


The ‘why’s’ behind this type of abuse against women are part of a broader conversation and body of research, however — critical research conducted by organisations such as Rawadari, MADRE, ICFJ, and more. Practically speaking, though, there are elements of the way platforms currently function that shape how women experience — and how perpetrators are enabled to inflict — this kind of abuse online.


Elon Musk’s 2022 purchase of Twitter, now X — where much of the research for the Gender Hate Speech report has come from* — has resulted in decreased content moderation and stymied tools to access data on the platform, and the removal and stripping-back of teams responsible for monitoring human rights issues and mis- and disinformation. Musk famously supports ‘freedom of speech’, indeed supporting it was one of his stated intentions after buying the platform, but it’s important to thread a needle with respect to how this plays out in practice, to ensure those who experience ‘free speech’ online aren’t silenced as a result of it. If an Afghan female activist is being silenced by online abuse, then that, too, is a free speech issue. 


There is also a consideration here when it comes to platform users moderating or reporting abusive content. If someone being abused online has to manually remove or block their abusers – sometimes in their thousands – whilst being potentially traumatised by the content, this surely de-incentivises them from participating in what has been touted as the virtual town square. 


Additionally, with the majority of examples included in the Gender Hate Speech report research being written in Dari/Farsi or Pashto, the platform’s ability to moderate content in languages other than English, in part dictates the amount of abuse people might experience. 


What are the possible solutions?


Many things can be done to address the challenges identified. Five recommendations, formed via consultation with a focus group of politically active Afghan women who have experienced online abuse, are listed alongside the report itself


Shaharzad, Francesca and Nina also reinforced the crucial importance of interventions including regular updates to hate speech policies, the expansion of language capabilities for the moderation of hate speech on platforms, and increased platform accountability overall, as good technical places to start. 


In terms of policies and programs, they noted governments and international bodies could increase funding for research and resilience programs to build women’s networks and skill sets to manage the effects of online abuse, as well as countering the abuse itself. 


Overall, the importance of enabling women to maintain a voice and space for themselves online, through platform accountability and varied policies and programs, was reinforced. 


Two final points were raised to conclude the discussion – 


“People often think of the online world as a ‘nice to have’ rather than as integral – in places like Afghanistan, though, such worlds are crucial and it is necessary that women can have this space to speak out.” – Nina Jankowicz, CIR

“We must recognise the adaptability and creativity of Afghan women who use other tools to make their voices heard when online spaces and others are closing – these women continue to inform and engage despite risks faced to them, inside and outside of Afghanistan.” – Shaharzad Akbar, Rawadari  

*It’s important to note AW’s quantitative research was often unable to come from platforms other than X, such as Meta’s Facebook or Instagram, due to access/API restrictions, but the investigation’s qualitative research was based on multiple platforms.

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