Colombia’s long history of violence is reflected in abusive online behavior that disproportionately targets women. Initiatives to change that have begun, but will likely take a long time.
— The Internet can be a tool to increase women's participation, but it's not being used effectively
— Women are disproportionately exposed to hate speech and cyberbullying
— On a political level, huge disinformation campaigns have taken place
— Several digital education efforts are under way, but their effectiveness is unclear
The Internet can give people who are discriminated against by society an opportunity to make themselves heard. That's especially true for women in Colombia: For them, the Internet has become an important medium to help draw attention to the issues that affect them. During the most recent presidential election campaign, for example, one group drew attention to women's issues which they wanted the candidates to address. But there are other issues of use and access that disproportionately affect women in Colombia.
For some women, it is difficult to be present online at all. A recent study by the Ministry of Telecommunications shows that one out of three women who don't use the Internet are indigenous – a disproportionately high number. Generally speaking, although a gender gap in Internet use exists, it is not that wide. But we can see a gender-based difference in how people use the Internet. According to theColombia chapter of the "Women's Rights Online" report, men tend to use the Internet to inform themselves, while women see it more as a source of entertainment. "Of the women surveyed, few use the web as a tool to increase their citizen and political participation or to find relevant information," the report states. The ministry study came to the same conclusion, adding the use of social networks and communication in general to the list of most prevalent activities. The information most consulted by female Colombians is thus associated with: health (77%), education (50%), employment (43%) and finally – to a much lesser extent – social and political participation (8%).
Online abuse of women
Women who are active online participants are also the group facing the most problems on social networks. "There is a lot of violence against women on the Internet," says Ariel Barbosa from the NGO Colnodo. He adds that men are increasingly using spyware to control their wives. Articles with headlines such as "Five applications to find out what your partner is hiding" are frequently printed in Colombian newspapers.
Aggressive discussions, hate speech, and cyberstalking are issues that women have faced in Colombia for years. Fifteen percent of Colombian women have experienced some form of violence against them via communication technology, according to the ministry study, which also assumes a high number of unreported cases. According to thejournalist association FLIP , "in 2017, the number of social network attacks on journalists increased, especially on women who received mainly verbal attacks and stigmatization against their work."
A culture of violence that extends to the Internet
The risk is even greater if the women who express themselves online are social activists, especially if they represent a minority. Their situation has always been difficult, but with the 2016 signing of the peace agreement between the Colombian government and FARC rebels, the number of activists killed has risen. In 2018 alone, at least 124 representatives of civic organizations were killed, especially in those regions where the conflict was most active.
As a country that suffered for decades under an armed conflict and a high level of general crime and domestic violence, Colombia has a culture of violence that has unfortunately extended into the comparatively new medium of the Internet. People can post whatever they want on social networks with relative impunity. Some general regulations apply, but there are no special national regulations for social media platforms and the only content that is blocked in Colombia is child pornography. "The state's response to allegations of online threats or intimidation turns out to be very slow or non-existent," concludes the "Women's Rights Online" report. It says the affected women respond in different ways, from blocking their attackers to withdrawing from social networks. But it’s clear that what happens on a social network can have terrible effects in real life, as in the case of a Venezuelan citizen who was lynched in Bogotá in reaction to a false rumor spread by WhatsApp chain message.
Disinformation as a political weapon
Posts on social networks not only have the potential to cause grave personal effects, but they can also impact politics. Colombia’s polarizing 2016 referendum on the peace agreement, rejected with a margin of just 55,000 votes, was marred by "fake news." Primarily actors from the right-wing political spectrum (the "no" side) tried to influence the vote with false and frightening news about Colombia becoming a communist country.
This led however to the emergence of a number of projects aimed at fighting false information on the Internet, particularly on platforms such as Facebook. One such verification initiative is Colombiacheck founded by Consejo de Redacción, a journalists' association, and financed mainly by international cooperation initiatives (including DW Akademie). Its work began with reviewing the negotiations between the government and FARC guerrillas in Havana, Cuba, and the impact of the agreements on Colombian soil. The project "WhatsApp Detector" focused on WhatsApp messages, which are much more difficult to oversee.
It makes sense to focus on such social networks, since many Internet users in Colombia find everything they need on just a few platforms, such as Facebook. According to company figures, 21 of Columbia's 50 million people log onto Facebook daily, while some 28 million people log in at least once a month. The platform is also widely used by media outlets and social activists to spread information – one way to reach people with political content.
Teaching young people to behave differently
One approach to improving the way people use the Internet is a long-term strategy, based on familiarizing even the youngest citizens with fair and socially responsible online behavior. The Colombian government has decided to focus on digital education, proudly announcing that "more than 2.2 million pieces of equipment were delivered to students in 43,000 public educational institutions across the country." As a result, it says that "Colombia went from having 24 children sharing the same equipment in 2010 to just 4 students in 2018." As part of the "Computers for Education" program, nearly half of the country's 160,000 teachers are to receive training in using computers in the classroom.
Related projects in the field of digital education are mainly, but not exclusively, directed at children and teens. Examples include "Promoting a Responsible Digital Lifestyle," "Escuela TIC Familia (Family School for Youth Information Technology)" or "JuvenTIC (Youth and Information Technology)." It is notable that these projects are mainly carried out or supported by mobile phone and Internet companies.
Girls are also particularly in the spotlight here, since the aforementioned ministry study came to the conclusion that although young women are interested in working in a MINT subject, ultimately biased thoughts such as "these are courses for men" or "my parents don't like this" often prevent them from doing so.
It’s not yet clear what kind of impact these initiatives will have and how many people they will reach in the end. Sometimes they fail for simple, foreseeable reasons such as a school being equipped with tablets but no Internet connection or staffed by teachers who don’t know what to do with them.
What experts say
Ariel Barbosa, co-founder of Colnodo, an NGO in Bogotá
Barbosa, who observed the development of the Internet in Colombia from the beginning, sees hate speech in Colombia as a consequence of the country’s violent history. "Because of so many years of violence, people are very aggressive," he says. "That's why there are also many attacks online, sometimes hidden in anonymity." Initiatives to counter hate speech could help fight the problem.
Carlos Gonzalez, director of Makaia, an NGO in Medellín
Since women from marginalized groups face greater obstacles in using the potential of the Internet and computer technology for their personal development, they should be the focus of attention, says Gonzalez. "We work with girls aged 14 to 18 who are in prison in Medellín, who have almost zero contact, and provide them with an intensive training in programming technology." The goal is for these skills to help them better integrate into society and escape the cycle of crime.
Camila Perez, economist and vice-director of Fedesarrollo, a thinktank in Bogotá
While social networks are becoming more and more important in Colombia, they are mainly used for private communication and entertainment. "They aren't used so much for interaction with the government," says Perez, although initiatives have been started to foster this, such as the accountability platform "www.urnadecristal.gov.co(Crystal Urn)." "As far as e-government in general is concerned, there is still a long way to go," Perez says.
— Encourage people to create their own (political) content
Greater active digital participation is needed in Colombia, not least because important decisions are being made for the future of the country in the course of the ongoing peace process. Institutions and civil society should help motivate people to become more involved. Since almost everything that happens on the Internet in Colombia plays out on social networks, there is a huge dependence on global players like Facebook. More diversity – in terms of both local digital content and platforms – could enrich the discourse in society. More independence from tech firms when organizing digital education would be a plus.
— Protect women from hate speech and cyberbullying
It is a big problem when certain social groups withdraw from the discussion on social networks because they are exposed to hate speech and threats. Politicians and civil society need to recognize that women in Colombia are disproportionately affected by this, and introduce measures to combat abusive behavior online. Greater Efforts are also needed to involve women more in online discourses and technology.
— Raising awareness of privacy on the Internet
There appears to be a very ambivalent attitude toward privacy on the Internet in Colombia. On the one hand, there is a wariness about online shopping due to concerns about data protection, but on the other hand, personal data is published in such way that it can lead to negative consequences such as physical attacks, especially on journalists and activists. In this area, there is a need for more education and sensitization as to where the dangers lie and how they can be counteracted.
The #speakup barometer is a DW Akademie project that examines the connection between digital participation, freedom of expression and access to information. Learn more at www.dw.com/barometer