Contributor: Nebechi Lauretta Ezeugbor
The rise of technology, currently in its fourth revolution, has precipitated Image-Based abuse and Online violence against women and girls. Education has been identified as a tool for change, just as illiteracy has been identified as a signifier of underdevelopment. This is true when appraised from the fact that the proportion of persons possessing digital literacy and the ability to understand, participate critically in the digital space is manifestly minimal compared to persons who do. When mis/disinformation infiltrates the digital space, it spreads with horrifying speed in the absence of digital experts to detect, track, identify and apprehend the culprits. When weaponised in a gendered context, mis/disinformation is usually salacious, relies on sensationalism and attacks the survivor it is directed to (or) the situation it seeks to distort.
Social media has demonstrated the potential to mobilise support against SGBV on the other hand, it is a preeminent mis/disinformation incendiaries that limit the collective impact of civil society actors and well-meaning individuals in eliminating SGBV and ensuring that survivors are precluded from justice. Social networking apps such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and messaging apps such as WhatsApp have significantly contributed, to the injustice experienced by survivors of SGBV. Here, a false tweet or fake tweet, massively re-tweeted, a misrepresenting WhatsApp broadcast or Facebook post, virally shared, operate en masse to propagate mis/disinformation. In the context of this discussion, Twitter notoriously comes to mind owing to its nature to disseminate information in real-time, catalyse online mob violence and silence countering narratives of survivors who endeavour to air their grievances or tell their stories through the platform. Amnesty International in its groundbreaking report, titled Toxic Twitter, articulates the failure of the social media giant to protect women from abuse and violations on the platforms despite several promises to do so. However, gendered disinformation is not exclusive to Twitter.
Contextualising this discourse in Nigeria, as earlier highlighted, digital media, when misappropriated, and the problematic institutional response to reports of SGBV are key threats to eliminating SGBV and accessing justice for survivors. The case of Seyitan Babatayo is instructive here. In 2020, Ms Babatayo made a complaint of sexual assault, rape against Mr Oladapo Daniel Oyebanjo, a famous musical artiste otherwise known as “D’banj”. The narrative surrounding this case led to a series of discussions across various social media platforms, with many users taking sides with the alleged perpetrator, given his fame, thus labelling the survivor’s experience as false and a strategically orchestrated event aimed at ruining the artist’s image and destroying his legacy. Upon a google search of the incident, an instant top result is an online publication that describes the survivor as “a beautiful Instagram and Twitter slay queen”. This description is problematic for many reasons, one of which is that the term “slay queen” in urban and social media usage has negative connotations for women. In addition to the description, the publication tactically attached select photos of the survivor that could inform negative bias against her by apparently prude, conservative and faux morally outraged readers who undoubtedly make up a good percentage of social media users in Nigeria. This directly underscores the role of search engine platforms like google in perpetuating harmful stereotypes. The fall out of this precipitated a series of mis/disinformed posts by social media users including influential figures, maligning her character, picking apart her narrative of events and casting aspersions on the veracity of her allegations. Eventually, Seyitan in a series of tweets recanted her allegations as a publicity stunt and went further to express support for the artist. It is not unusual for survivors of SGBV to recant their statements due to pressure and intimidation. Secure in the belief that the survivor is effectively intimidated, subdued and silenced from telling their stories and getting justice the perpetuator’s narrative reigns supreme. The chilling result is that the survivor is mentally and emotionally drained, the sexual assault goes unreported, and the cycle of SGBV continues unchecked.
Another seminal case of mis/disinformation as a barrier to eliminating SGBV and access to justice of survivors is the 2019 case of Busola Dakolo, a renowned photographer who detailed how she was raped by Biodun Fatoyinbo, a religious leader and founder of a prominent Church in Nigeria. The series of incidents that trailed her narrative fueled vicious attacks on her personality and sought to create loopholes in her story, the dominant being why she waited for two decades to share her experience. It is essential to state here that survivors do not owe perfect nor prompt detailing of their abuse because trauma is a state, processed differently by each and every survivor.
A known businessman, Wale Jana, attacked Busola Dakolo’s character by making a post that Busola Dakolo was “no saint” and had engaged in multiple premarital affairs resulting in two pregnancies outside wedlock. Despite subsequently apologising for this post, the damage sought to discount Busola Dakolo’s narrative was achieved. In a society heavily influenced by religious orthodoxy, it is hardly inconceivable that the default inclination is to side with a survivor over a religious leader even where the vilest allegations of crime are levelled against them.
Busola Dakolo, the survivor and her husband, Timi Dakolo, were sought to be intimidated by the Nigerian Police Force, who invited them for questioning over “a case of criminal conspiracy, falsehood, mischief and threat to life” made against them. The irony of this situation is not lost to a discerning mind when appraised from the perspective that the Nigerian Police Force did not channel equal efforts towards investigating the rape allegations raised against Biodun Fatoyinbo by Busola Dakolo. To compound issues, a High Court in Abuja, Nigeria, dismissed the claim of Busola Dakolo against Biodun Fatoyinbo, citing the matter as “empty and purely sentimental”. Judgement of the Court was delivered against Busola Dakolo, and costs were awarded against her in favour of Biodun Fatoyinbo.
In addition to this, the constant bullying and character assassination of the activists working on the cases is instructive and seeks to diminish their reputation and, inherently, the SGBV case. For instance, with the case against D’Banj, several known social media blogs and users, including the accused, constantly targetted the activists visibly known to work on the case, claiming there was a “feminist agenda” to witchhunt “prominent men” and the interventions were clearly for the benefit of the activist winning awards and grants. Even with legal outlines and evidence from witnesses to the crimes committed, the misinformation influences public perception, undermines the legitimacy of the survivors’ stories and could silence future survivors who may seek help.
Another instance is the case of Uwavera Omozuwa, a 22-year-old student of the University of Benin who was raped and killed in a Church in Benin. Although the Nigeria Police Force were investigating the case, the public narrative that was gaining momentum framed it that the victim had an affair with the Pastor of the said religious institution and was killed for refusing to abort the pregnancy. Although this was shut down, such false narratives could impact the Nigeria Police Force in apprehending the real culprits.
Two of the cases appraised in light of mis/disinformation included high profile individuals. This equally results in dire consequences for survivors. The consequence is that it spreads the mis/disinformation that justice is a far-fetched idea for survivors of SGBV irrespective of societal status and that perpetrators will always get away with SGBV crimes. This, unfortunately, creates an escape route for guilty persons who can now easily deploy mis/disinformation to evade justice. Furthermore, it highlights the dangers of technology in disseminating falsehoods and how institutional patterns and behavioural systems fuel mis/disinformation that frustrate and curtail the possibility or efforts of survivors in accessing and securing justice.
The Government is a fundamental structure that supports the growth and development of any society. The government has a paramount role in counteracting mis/disinformation to uphold the rule of law and create avenues of refuge for survivors seeking justice. In truth, mis/disinformation is a global issue that has generated several debates with reports highlighting actions, actual and proposed, that Governments have adopted in combating this infodemic.
How can survivors, civil society organisations, human and gender rights activists, feminists, women in politics etc., be assured protection from smear campaigns, character assassinations and fake news heralded by strategic mis/disinformation propaganda aimed at frustrating efforts in advocating for better institutional processes and attaining justice? Regulation is a fair proposition in this regard. The trust deficit between the government and the people makes it difficult to guarantee that the government would not overreach its powers. However, The regulation being prescribed must be legal, applied only for the purpose prescribed, and proportional.
Regulation of digital media cannot, realistically, be absolute in practicality. New ways to evade detection are on the rise. To this end, the government can take concise steps to promote digital literacy of law enforcement agents through periodic training, workshops and seminars to enable them to gain vital IT and cyber skills to identify, trace, decipher and counter mis/disinformation and apprehend the culprits behind them. Digital literacy skill acquisition for law enforcement agents is equally tied to deconstructing the prevailing rhetoric on institutional responses to SGBV and complicity in perpetrating crimes against survivors. This should be accompanied by the promotion and enforcement of ethical standards and regulations within justice systems that ensure survivors of SGBV have increased access to prompt help and support.
The role of the individual in addressing mis/disinformation cannot be overstated. A viable means individuals can adopt in taking action is volunteering with CSOs to build their capacity and understanding of SGBV and surrounding justice issues. An enlightened individual is invaluable and can make a difference by spreading the word within their immediate community.
Individuals with substantial social media following owe a duty to be mindful of the content they put out as they significantly influence the perspective of their followers. Illustrative is the micro-blogging social platform Twitter. Here, beyond the standard accountability, any individual has to limit the spread of mis/disinformation; there is a greater responsibility on celebrities and digital influencers to refrain from popularising harmful tweets that promote sexual violence.
A seminal example involves the famous singer, Tobechukwu Okoh, who goes by the stage name “Peruzzi”. In 2020, he was accused of rape, which he outrightly denied, aided by corroboration. This accusation was never investigated. However, upon a search history, he was discovered to have made a series of tweets a decade ago promoting rape, which he promptly deleted upon discovery.
Views such as these are harmful and place survivors in a position where they question the authenticity of their experience because narratives surrounding rape are normalised. The undiscerning public becomes desensitised to survivors’ experiences and sexual violence in its entirety. It becomes a case of “so long as it doesn’t happen to me, it doesn’t perturb me.”
Further, in one of the case studies discussed above, through the instrumentality of social media platforms, individuals with a sizable following embarked on a series of mis/disinformation campaigns to varying degrees, attacking the survivor and putting her in a state of mental and emotional distress — all the while burgeoning a madding crowd against the survivor and activists genuinely supporting her in the quest for justice. The reverse is the case rather than uplift survivors and acknowledges their untold strength in vocalising their experiences. Where the survivor is not being doubted, viciously picked-apart, slut-shamed and victim-blamed, they’re being misrepresented as capricious or weak — all or any of these depictions are dependent on the agenda that portrays the survivor in the worst light.
It is an indisputable fact that strength exists in numbers. Individuals, undoubtedly, are watchmen and a reflection of the society they live in. This is more so in a digital world where the lines between fact and fiction, reality and illusion, can be blurred. One individual positively impacts another, and correcting negative perceptions and stereotypes grow into a collective of like-minded individuals working productively towards diminishing deep-seated mis/disinformation around SGBV and spotlighting the need for survivors accessing justice without fear or intimidation. By taking conscious steps to pinpoint mis/disinformation, call out mis/disinformation agents and their propaganda, consciously fact-checking and verifying the authenticity of dubious information, all whilst engaging in healthy conversations around consent, preventing sexual and gender-based violence and holding perpetrators accountable — indeed, a positive, collective social consciousness will be invigorated and prospered and a world advocacy efforts foster and survivors are assured access to justice, will be realisable.
The media has a crucial role in eliminating sexual and gender-based violence and advancing access to justice. Media reporting of SGBV typically focuses on victims and survivors, often portrayed in a less empowering light. The stories of survivors must uplift and empower them over and above the abuser. Extreme care must be taken to ensure that the report does not re-victimize or re-traumatise the survivor. Also, the voices of women and sexual minority experts must be heard and represented as sources of information, opinion and expertise in discussing SGBV and access to justice.
The media must be deliberate about challenging gender stereotypes, particularly stereotypes that portray survivors of SGBV as moral decadence who contribute to the cause of the violations they suffer. This can be achieved by producing gender-transformative content that would empower people to speak up against SGBV and deter violations. Furthermore, the media must be sensitive about reporting “both sides” of the story in relation to SGBV to ensure that perpetrators are not given a platform to further discredit the survivors’ voices.
In addition, the media should not treat SGBV as an episodic event that wanes off after the spotlight shifts; instead, it should incorporate it into its strategic objectives, which would be reflected in the overall media output. The media, through its influence, can apply adequate pressure on the government to repeal repressive laws and enact laws that guarantee access to justice for victims and survivors of SGBV.
Civil society organisations
Civil society organisations should invest adequately in qualitative and quantitative research that examines the impact of gendered misinformation and disinformation in eliminating sexual and gender-based violence and advancing access to justice. There is a dearth of research in this regard which directly impacts the potential for effective intervention.
It is also crucial for CSOs to identify root causes and structures of gendered disinformation, particularly at the grassroots level. In addressing this, there is a need to facilitate the formation of grassroots networks that resist the threat of mis/disinformation at the community level. Such networks would be empowered to boldly and courageously influence social norms, break stereotypes and drive social change.
Civil society can equally galvanise financial support for technological developers who are keen on inventing human rights centred tech solutions that would preserve the dignity of users. Such interventions could include verification and authenticity infrastructure to counter manipulated media. WITNESS and our partners have embarked on the drafting of an access protocol for deepfakes detection tools, the development of a responsible, human rights-respecting authenticity infrastructure and the development of user-friendly verification and accountability tools.
Civil society can facilitate a link between reputable media organisations and potential funders. This is to ensure that organisations that prioritise a gender-responsive approach are sustained.
In addition, civil society can also advocate for new laws and or the amendment of existing laws that would better protect people from digital-based SGBV. In the same vein, CSOs should push for the operationalisation of gender response departments within law enforcement operations. While ensuring that erring officers are brought to justice in a fair trial.
To change behaviour and to systematically dispel and nullify the impact of gendered disinformation, all hands must be on deck, including civil society. This should include deliberate and consistent mass sensitisation drives to remote villages to empower them to fight SGBV.
Technology platforms must centre human rights in the design, development and deployment of technology. The deployment of non-consensual deepfake pornography is utterly reckless and remains the most common form of deepfake that almost entirely targets women. Technology developers as a community must begin to introspect on the physical and psychological harm technology inflicts on society, particularly vulnerable groups. Just as other professional bodies have a binding code of conduct that regulates the profession, technologists must collectively develop ethical guidelines that would mitigate the irresponsible deployment of technology, which they should abide by.
The tech community should invest equally in detection and verification tools to counter the perceived authenticity of deepfakes and other forms of manipulated media.
Social media platforms should urgently consider the response to sexual and gender-based violence as a priority and proactively mitigate the spread of gendered disinformation. These platforms should be transparent about the extent of sexual and gender-based violence on their platforms and how they respond to it. This must include a responsive reporting mechanism that would include public labelling of abusers on the platform.
In addition, platforms should elevate the voices of gender rights advocates amidst the noise of misogyny and sexist narratives. Platforms should invest adequately in language support and understanding the local context to ensure that abuses are correctly interpreted and addressed. Platforms must also introduce effective privacy and security tools and policies that would better protect users.
Social media platforms must prioritise in-app media literacy on gendered mis/disinformation to foster a safe space for users, particularly women and other minorities.
At WITNESS we believe that high quality, trustworthy, and actionable video documentation can be used in criminal justice processes to bring perpetrators to justice, and achieve other forms of justice for victims and survivors. Our newest Video as Evidence resource: ‘Using Video to Support Justice and Accountability for Sexual and Gender-Based Violence” is an in-depth guide for frontline documenters and community advocates who support looking to utilise video as evidence in cases involving sexual and gender-based violence.
STAND TO END RAPE INITIATIVE (STER) is working on various projects to amplify the voices of women online and to ensure that women are protected in all spheres of endeavour online as well as offline. STER is relentlessly committed to survivors of SGBV by providing holistic support services, spearheading initiatives, framing survivor-centred programs and negotiating key partnerships that are geared towards ensuring that the elimination of SGBV is an achievable reality. One of such strategic partnerships is with FACEBOOK to improve their safety policy to protect Women’s online rights and safety in Africa. Stay tuned to our current activities and advocacy-centred initiatives by visiting our website and following our social media channels for up-to-date information.
Nkem Agunwa is the Project Coordinator for Africa at WITNESS. Her focus is on countering the proliferation of mis/disinformation that incites violence and undermines the trustworthiness of video evidence. With almost a decade’s experience as a digital communications campaigner, Nkem has engaged extensively on freedom of expression, police brutality, democracy and good governance.
Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi is a gender equality advocate with seven (7) years of experience developing and implementing innovative strategies and programs. She is the Executive Director of Stand To End Rape (STER) Initiative, a youth-led social justice organisation based in Nigeria. Oluwaseun Ayodeji is the first-ever 2020 Global Citizen Prize for Nigeria’s Hero, was recognised by the United Nations as a Young Leader for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Commonwealth Young Person for the Year 2019 and in the same year named as one of TIME’s 100 NEXT.
Nebechi Lauretta Ezeugbor is passionate about human rights, advocacy, access to justice for sexual and gender-based violence survivors and promoting gender equality and fairness. As STER’s Human Rights Lawyer, she oversees client management, litigation, legal advice and support to survivors and liaises with external partners on best legal strategies and compliance.