IGF 2021 Lightning Talk #29 "I silenced myself": Brazilian female activists' perspectives on online targeted harassment

Tuesday, 7th December, 2021 (12:45 UTC) - Tuesday, 7th December, 2021 (13:05 UTC)
Conference Room 6

Center for Technology and Society/FGV Law School
Yasmin Curzi de Mendonça (Center for Technology and Society, FGV Law School) Clara Leitão de Almeida (Center for Technology and Society, FGV Law School)


Yasmin Curzi de Mendonça (Center for Technology and Society, FGV Law School)

Onsite Moderator
Clara Leitão de Almeida
Online Moderator

Clara Leitão de Almeida


Clara Leitão de Almeida



Duration (minutes)



This session relates to the "Economic and social inclusion and human rights" issue area, especially focusing on the "Promoting equitable development and preventing harm" policy question. It aims to present the partial results of my doctoral research at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, where I interview Brazilian female journalists/fact-checkers and politicians that have experienced situations of online gender-based violence (OGBV) with the goal of understanding their strategies of resistence and the insufficiencies present in the current institutional legal framework, as well as the obstacles posed by social media platforms in properly addressing OGBV. The lightning talk will thus provide a panorama on the current Brazilian scenario regarding OGBV and equitable participation in online platforms, discussing the main dilemmas faced by women in the public eye in the country. Starting from the victims' perspectives, a path towards more inclusive social networks might be built. The accounts regarding the inefficacy of platforms current tools - especially in the Global South - could provide insights on the design and infrastructure changes required for the development of these applications.

The session will be open to questions both from on-site and online participants – the organizers have extensive experience in conducting and moderating similar sessions (e.g. the Dynamic Coalition on Platform Responsibility at IGF 2020). The session will also be live-tweeted from the institutional accounts of the Center for Technology and Society (@CTS_FGV) and the CyberBRICS project (@BRICSCyber) by other staff members.

Key Takeaways (* deadline 2 hours after session)

Policymakers and platforms should move away from viewing victims of online abuse as powerless and passive; Victims of online harassment need to be listened to, both by the legal system and by online platforms; There is a need for more cooperation by platforms to the proper address of online violence, by investing in research to improve their features and API's – in constant dialogue with experts and civil society.

Call to Action (* deadline 2 hours after session)

There is a need for more cooperation by platforms to the proper address of online violence, by investing in research to improve their features and API's – in constant dialogue with experts and civil society.

Session Report (* deadline 26 October) - click on the ? symbol for instructions

Lightning Talk - "I Silenced myself": Brazilian Female Activists'perspectives on online targeted harassment. 

The session presented a summary of partial results from Yasmin Curzi's Ph.D. dissertation, which focuses on gender-based violence in the digital space. In order to contribute to this field of study in Brazil research, the work aims at adopting an approach that favors the victim's perspective, in order to better identify effective responses facing the violence issue. The importance of considering the victim's agency, when willing to promote respectful and caring research, was highlighted. 

The session continues by presenting the concept of harassment, as defined by the US lawyer and feminist advocate, Catherine MacKinnon, that contributed to its inclusion in Title VII in the American Civil Act, 1964, by defining harassment as a sex discrimination act in the workspace. Despite the remarkable importance of this discussion and its impact on legislation in several countries, such as Brazil, other environments remained without legal protection, such as the streets and, nowadays, the online space. 

Harassment, as a siege tactic within the digital space, is organized on networks and distributed on the victim's multiple social media platforms, in order to silence and intimidate a speech seen as inimical. Reports produced by Statisa (2017), Safernet (2020), Plan International (2020), presents the increase of online harassment/violence against women, the frequency of it, and/or shows the need to fulfill the lack of legal response to online harassment, by presenting the most common types of attacks. 

Curzi's work aimed at the perception of the victims of such acts of violence, especially women journalists and politicians/candidates, who are usually more exposed to online conversations within online public life. Studies conducted by Azmina and Internetlab (2020), and also data by Abraji (2020) stated that women of these two groups of profession usually suffer more from online violence in Brazil, than their male fellows. 

The speaker (Yasmin Curzi) presented a few excerpts of the interviews conducted with women journalists and politicians, which suggest that women are often not encouraged to respond to aggressions made against them within the digital sphere. They shared stories about coordinated attacks, offenses that escalated to threats of physical violence, or even death, as well as exposal of personal data, including images of the attacked person, as well as other traumatic events in relation to their works (e.g., dropping fact-checking activity). This type of strategy can reduce the ability to discuss and defend oneself (e.g. to choose not to sue a platform, fearing more vulnerable and exposed, as counter-suits are very common and these organizations have often done that), in addition to increasing concern about excessive exposure in social networks.

The interviewees also denounced the lack of appropriate mechanisms for reporting, filtering, and moderating offensive content on platforms, besides finding themselves in lack of support of the editorials or parties they were related to. 

The need to look more closely at gender political violence has caused the Organization of American States (OAS) to write a "Declaration on Violence and Political Harassment Against Women" (2015). The document calls for "a definition of political violence and harassment against women, taking into account regional and international discussions on the subject" and that "both violence and political harassment against women may include any gender-based action, conduct or omission; and may occur individually or in groups" and "have as their objective or result to belittle, annul, prevent, hinder, or restrict the political rights, or rights of women to have a life free of violence, and the right to participate in political and public affairs on equal terms to men". 

Within the digital sphere, risks faced by women, such as the manipulation of images, whether from deep fakes or montages, also gain a feature of gender violence when it is triggered to morally expose a woman. The definition of "gendered disinformation" (by Yasmin Curzi) is in the "Glossary of platform law and policy terms" (outcome from the 2021 DCPR, available here). 

By answering a question posed about tactics that could be implemented by social media platforms in order to encourage women to answer to the aggressions, Curzi argues that the platforms should invite women victims of online violence/harassment, and listen to organizations that can help them to improve their API, i.e., choosing a better path then just censoring speech and/or increasing false positives in the detection of offensive contents. The platforms could also benefit from techniques that are being developed by machine learning and natural language processing studies. She also introduces the ongoing project of Azminas' magazine, which is currently developing an AI tool in order to detect more specifically misogynistic offenses in Portuguese. 

As a result of the observations of the interviews upheld, Curzi also presents solutions proposed by women that are (or have been) targeted by coordinated attacks. These women think that social platforms should improve their interface by adopting a few mechanisms, such as the possibility to end a conversation in a given post on Twitter, after it is already published, in order to avoid commentaries/interactions. Another solution by victims is to implement tools that allow users to denounce several accounts as attackers at the same time (as it has already been developed by a few platforms companies).