Think Tank (3/2021)
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Gender, Security and Digital Space: Exploring Risks, Opportunities, and Security Implications
11 May 2021
Gulizar Haciyakupoglu

The Centre of Excellence for National Security at RSIS and the Canadian High Commission to Singapore collaboratively organised a three-part webinar series on “Gender, Security and Digital Space: Exploring Risks, Opportunities, and Security Implication” on 11, 18, and 25 May 2021.

The webinar series featured industry experts and speakers at the forefront of research and practice, and explored various issues concerning security in cyberspace, including disinformation campaigns, hate speech, and internet shutdowns. Acknowledging that these issues have disproportionate effects on the population by gender, and that policy responses to online threats have gendered impacts, the webinar series amplified the need for a gendered approach to security and cyberspace.

Webinar 1: Securing Digital Space with Attention to Gender

The first webinar featured Dr Katharine Millar, Assistant Professor of International Relations in the Department of International Relations at the London School of Economics; Dr Fitriani B. Timur, Researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Indonesia; and Dr Sarah Shoker, Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Waterloo. The webinar provided an overview of critical issues in the cybersecurity landscape and explored how gendered impacts are often overlooked, putting women and other marginalised groups at greater risk online. Internet shutdowns, employed against political mobilisation and unrest, disproportionately affect women who are likely to be more dependent on digital ICTs to mobilise, access services, and to gain situational awareness. Masculinised approaches to the cybersecurity concepts of vulnerability, threat, and security, often lead to the responsibility of cybersecurity being placed unfairly on individuals who do not have resources to fully secure themselves.

The first webinar also pointed out contextual differences in gender equality agenda in digital spaces. In ASEAN, the digital gender divide has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Although there has been digital acceleration in the wake of the pandemic, women’s access to education and career opportunities, and participation in digital space, are curtailed by the persistence of this gender divide in access to technologies and the skills needed to navigate digital spaces.

Webinar 2: Gender, Disinformation, and Politics

Dr Gabrielle Bardall, Principal, Herizon Democracy LLC and Research Associate for the Centre for International Policies at the University of Ottawa; Ms Lucina Di Meco, Co-Founder, #ShePersisted; and Ms Nina Jankowicz, a Disinformation Fellow at the Wilson Centre, helmed the discussion for the second webinar which featured an opening statement by Prof Sun Sun Lim, Head of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, Singapore University of Technology and Design. Discussions centred on gendered implications of disinformation and hate speech, especially those targeted at women in politics. The speakers argued that gendered disinformation and hate speech intensify existing gender stereotypes in society and dissuade women from engaging in politics, which is detrimental to democracy and human rights. Ms Di Meco noted patterns across diverse contexts, for example, narratives employed in gendered disinformation commonly vilify women and depict them as incapable. These narratives are used to exclude women from politics, tarnish women’s rights, and curb political opposition. However, as Dr Bardall highlights, there are also cultural differences mirroring local gender stereotypes. For instance, online hate in Zimbabwe might draw upon witchcraft.

Risks to national and individual security in cyberspace include algorithmic gender biases, disinformation, and toxic representation of women, all of which diminish advantages brought by the Internet and social media. There are impediments to countering gendered disinformation and hate speech online: the absence of gendered approaches to threats enables the use of coded language and memes for gendered hate speech and disinformation to escape detection by social media platforms, and states lack political will to solve the problem.

Measures to counter gendered disinformation and hate speech should identify gender-based violence as a distinct form of violence, and pay attention to advancing tactics, instruments, and terminology concerning violence against women. Perpetrators of gendered disinformation and abuse in online spaces are often not held accountable, while victims often bear the burden of reporting. A sustainable solution requires a whole-of-society approach.

Webinar 3: Fighting Gender-Based Hate Speech and Disinformation, and the Role of Social Innovation

The third webinar featured Ms Audrey Tang, Digital Minister of Taiwan; Ms Maria Ressa, CEO and Executive Editor of Rappler; and Mr Priyank Mathur, the Founder and CEO of Mythos lab. It focused on countering gender-based hate speech and disinformation, and the role of social innovation in addressing online insecurity. The third webinar noted the surge in the amount of and engagement with misogynistic content especially during the pandemic, and argued that misogynistic narratives have disproportionate effects on attitudes in online spaces. Government and civic-tech community collaborations in Taiwan served as an example of community-driven and collaborative efforts in the battle against disinformation and misinformation during the pandemic. Some counter-measure best practices in Asia include promoting digital literacy, as well as using humour when countering online misogyny.

The third webinar also highlighted that political leaders can use misogynistic and sexist disinformation and hate speech against female journalists, dissidents, and activists; and such online narratives carry the risk of inciting offline violence.

In conclusion, the webinar series underscored the disproportionate threats faced by women in digital spaces, including, but not limited to gendered digital divide, disinformation, and hate speech. As such, there is a need for more consideration of how factors like gender, race, ethnicities, and class interact to produce insecurities online, thus underscoring the need for a gendered perspective on security problems and solutions in cyberspace.

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