The Shadow Pandemic and Social Media

woman holding cell phone with laptop in front of her

Could you imagine experiencing a pandemic in the 1920s? Fast-forward a century into the era of the internet, communication at the speed of light is something we take for granted. We are able to see and read what is happening all around the world with a click of a button in real time, whether it is through a newsletter, website, or social media app.

While social media use has already been nearly universal with 90% of young adults using social media, the COVID-19 pandemic has produced a sharp increase in online activity. The closure of offices, schools, restaurants, movie theaters, and beyond has forced Canadians of all ages to take to the Internet in almost every facet of life, from work, schooling, leisure activities, to even grocery shopping. As a result, over 90% of citizens 15 to 34 years of age and 54% of Canadians 65 to 74 years of age reported more online activities during the pandemic.

What impact has increased online activity had on Gender-Based Violence (GBV)?

With so many people conducting their daily activities online, women have become more exposed to manifestations of technology-facilitated violence. In the professional and academic sphere, Zoom and other internet video-conferencing platforms can leave users vulnerable to “Zoom-bombing — a form of harassment where the attacker posts offensive and shocking content to disrupt virtual meeting spaces”.

In a Ryerson study analyzing the content of ‘bombings’ uploaded in compilation videos on Youtube, it was found that almost 87% of these compilations contained misogynist, racist, and homophobic messaging as well as other offensive content. What’s more, many of these attacks were directed towards female instructors in virtual classrooms.

In women’s private lives, the shift towards heavy internet-usage has also opened the doors to forms of image-based abuse. With lockdown orders in effect, intimacy has taken on an increasingly virtual form with one in five participants of a study reporting they have adopted new methods of sexual behaviour as a result of distancing measures keeping them from physical modes of intimacy.

 

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As such, acts of sexual violence continue to take place by means of non-consensual distribution of intimate images over the internet. This can include ex-significant others threatening to post images shared in confidence as a form of revenge porn, or even the spread of digitally-altered “deep-fakes”. Right here in Canada, cybertip.ca reported a 58% rise in non-consensual sharing of intimate images by the beginning of 2021 compared to the nine-month period before April 1, 2020.

In addition to these numerous new instances of online violence against women, the pandemic has also thrown the effects of technological abuse in to stark relief. Abusers seek to gain control over others, often with the goal of making their partner completely dependent on them. Restricting internet access and closely monitoring online activity are forms of technological VAW that have long been reported by women experiencing abuse. This type of abuse can be especially damaging during a pandemic that already severely restricts survivors’ access to in person confidantes and support services, rendering it near impossible for survivors to seek help or attempt to leave.

A point of hope: lending a virtual helping hand

In the face of rising harassment and abuse over the internet, there have also been moments of solidarity. One example was the trending hashtag, #SignalForHelp, a tool for those at risk of violence and abuse. By using this simple one-handed gesture during a video call, people experiencing violence can discreetly indicate that they are in need of help. The campaign was widely shared over various social media platforms all over the world, reflecting the capacity for online communities to spread valuable resources.

Shelter Movers is a national nonprofit dedicated to ending the cycle of violence in Canada through our provision of free moving and storage services to families leaving abusive households. Our organization is driven by passionate volunteers in a wide variety of roles — if you’re looking to lend a virtual helping hand in your own community, we have remote positions in Volunteer Services, Fund Development, Marketing and Communications, and Operations. To learn more about our network of dedicated volunteers, follow this link to find your place at Shelter Movers, and check out our volunteer page to join our team.

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