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Defending Online Spaces: a critical issue for development and social justice

Published on 22 February 2022

The digital revolution and access to online spaces is transforming the ways we communicate, work and organise.  With online spaces and digital equality now also key to mobilising social justice movements and challenging inequities, understanding how to defend online spaces is now a critical area for development research – and for achieving the sustainable development goals by 2030.

Mobile phones and internet technologies are being used positively by women and marginalised groups to access information, organise to demand their rights, and to influence policy and political change. However, the same online technologies are also used to disrupt civil society, spread disinformation, target online hate speech and to silence dissent.

Research from IDS and our partners is providing a greater understanding of the digital rights landscape and how online spaces – from online chat rooms and blogging to social media and online phone and messaging apps – are being used and closed down. This digital research knowledge is critical for donors, policymakers and practitioners within development seeking to further social, environmental and gender justice, and to help build inclusive and democratic societies.

Closing online civic space

As offline civic space is increasingly under threat globally (well documented by Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA) research) online civic space is now facing similar pressures.

Two days before Uganda’s Presidential elections in January 2021, social media networks were blacked out. The run up to Ethiopia’s general election in June 2021 was saturated by online hate speech, fake government accounts, internet shutdowns and internet surveillance. More recently in November 2021 the internet was shut down in Sudan amid long-running citizen protests, as a way for the military government to hinder the protest organisers and prevent them from sharing what was happening with the outside world.

Read the blog Closing online civic space: protest amid internet shutdowns in Sudan.

Research published by the African Digital Rights Network (ADRN) over the past 12 months has documented these and other ways that governments are reacting to the new ways that citizens are using digital tools and online platforms to open up spaces for organising civic action and are closing them down. This research and the latest developments regarding closing online civic space in countries in Africa, including in Ethiopia, Sudan and Kenya will be discussed at an upcoming event.

Watch the event from the 1 March on ‘Defending online civic spaces: lessons from Africa’

Defending online spaces for women

The spreading of disinformation to discredit and damage the reputations of women online is part of a wider problem of online hate speech and forms of online misogyny and online gender-based violence.

This wider issue and findings from new research from the Countering Backlash programme, to understand online gender-based violence in Bangladesh, will be discussed in an upcoming IDS event to mark International Women’s Day.

Register for the online event on Thursday 10 March on ‘Defending online spaces for women – countering disinformation and gender based violence’

Disinformation and online hate speech

Misinformation is information that is inaccurate or misleading, but it is not necessarily intended to be so or to cause harm. However, digital disinformation is the sharing of incorrect information online knowing that it is incorrect and with the intent to purposefully mislead, disrupt or confuse.

In the past two years discussions around online mis and disinformation have largely focused on the Covid-19 pandemic – most notably regarding vaccines. Disinformation is also commonly associated with online propaganda tactics, such as to interfere with political processes. One area less discussed, which IDS research programmes are shedding light on, is the online disinformation targeted at women. This is being done to women in countries such as Pakistan or Bangladesh either to discredit them due to their work to further gender justice, or due to them belonging to a religious minority – or both.

This issue of online backlash against feminist activists is explored further by the research programme Sustaining Power: Women’s Struggles against contemporary backlash in South Asia (SuPWR) and in the article online disinformation: a weapon to silence feminists.

The Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development (CREID), convened by IDS, explores the of rise online hate speech towards women of religious minorities through the #incite podcast series.

Episodes include:

This news story was updated on 1 March 2022.

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