This article is written by Rowella Marri Berizo as part of EngageMedia’s Youth Advocacy and Communications for Internet Freedom project, which aims to expand awareness and engagement with digital rights issues among youth advocates in the Asia-Pacific.
Rowella Marri, more commonly called Owe (Oh-wee), is a gender and digital rights activist from the Philippines. She is currently working as a Project Officer of Ayaw Ko Pagyawa-a, a social media campaign that aims to mainstream digital rights and awareness of online gender-based violence in the Philippines. Follow the campaign on Instagram @ayawkopagyawaa and on X (formerly Twitter), @pistingyawa1125.
Content warning: References to sexual violence
The world as we know it has drastically changed with the internet and social media. Young Filipinos are taking advantage of the new possibilities that the digital age offers, particularly in the realm of entertainment and connecting with each other online. This is evident with the popularity of online celebrities and influencers who found success by using technology and social media to charm the world with their dance moves, like TikToker Niana Guerrero, or bring laughter and inspiration through their life stories, as with popular YouTuber Mimiyuuh. Similarly, the internet and social media have also bridged the gap between audiences and their favourite influencers, since young Filipinos just need their phones and an internet connection to post, watch, and comment their thoughts. However, this also gave rise to a culture of unsolicited comments, of “sliding into DMs,” and of “calling out,” which have underlying hints of sexism, ageism, and racism.
Defining online gender-based violence
Stevie, a 16-year-old Filipino, recalls their experience of receiving direct messages on Instagram from male users asking Stevie to indulge them in their sexual fantasies. Before deleting their Instagram posts and changing their account to a private one, Stevie frequently received messages that often involved comments about specific parts of their body, such as the hips and buttocks. Other users hiding behind anonymous profiles even went as far as saying that Stevie’s body would be “perfect for bearing their children”. However, this is not the full extent of Stevie’s traumatic and scary experience. It came to a point where a male user engaged with Stevie in a relentless stream of messages, asking Stevie if their toenails had nail polish and even demanded that they reply faster so that he could also ejaculate faster.
What Stevie experienced is a form of online gender-based violence (OGBV), which is defined as any act that is “committed, assisted, aggravated, or amplified by the use of information communication technologies or other digital tools which results in or is likely to result in physical, sexual, psychological, social, political or economic harm or other infringements of rights and freedoms” (UN Women, 2023). Among its many forms are
- Online Harassment
- Hate Speech
- Non-Consensual Sharing of Intimate Images
In the Philippines, the Foundation for Media Alternatives documented a total of 686 cases of OGBV in their 2023 midyear report. This is a significant spike compared to the 659 documented cases of OGBV identified from 2021 to December 2022. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Commission on Human Rights’ Gender Ombud Report also noted a drastic increase in OGBV cases. During the 2022 national elections, the prevalence of misogynistic and violent remarks was rampant, with female political candidates often at the receiving end. Based on a fact-checking analysis by Tsek.ph, 96% of disinformation that involved then-Vice President Leni Robredo, who was running for president, was negative, which means that the content was primarily created to malign her and destroy her reputation.
Around the world, OGBV cases are often undetected or unrecognised by victim-survivors and even some of the perpetrators primarily due to lack of awareness or understanding about what constitutes OGBV. On the internet, unanswered questions surrounding social media etiquette and boundary-setting remain. There are cases where offhand comments or viral games and challenges are peddled as harmless entertainment when, upon closer analysis, these tend to have undertones of gender-based violence. For instance, the “titikman o tatakpan” challenge (literally translates to “taste or cover”) gained notoriety in Philippine cyberspace as thousands of content creators and users played this without understanding its implications. The challenge, which became famous on YouTube and TikTok two years ago, involves users specifying how they would want to treat a person – choosing between either tasting them or covering their faces. The option “titikman” has sexual connotations and can actually be a form of online sexual harassment, since it implies that one would want to “taste” a person through a form of sexual act.
Big Tech and government accountability
OGBV also remains widespread partly because Big Tech companies such as Google and Meta have weak policies surrounding hate speech, cyberbullying, and non-consensual sharing of intimate images or spreading someone’s “nudes” without their permission. While social media platforms have community guidelines in place to regulate content being uploaded on their websites, the takedown of harmful content is mostly reliant on user reporting. There is little active monitoring of user posts, allowing for content that spreads hate and violence against women and members of the LGBTQIA+ community to remain on the platforms.
Ironically, while posts that fall under the remit of OGBV are difficult to take down, a study published by the Center for Intimacy Justice revealed that Meta’s censorship guidelines systematically reject sexual reproductive and health rights for women and people of diverse genders. Out of the 60 businesses that the Center interviewed, 100% said their ads focusing on women’s health were rejected by Facebook and Instagram. The rejected ads included terms such as menopause, pelvic pain, sexual wellness, and menstrual health, among others.
In light of the proliferation of hate speech and cyberbullying, Twitter once had an era where its users sought justice on their own through what has been dubbed as the call-out culture or Cancel Era. Whether these acts of “cancelling” a person are warranted or not, the danger of this practice is that it enables mob mentality and a toxic mindset of people jumping on the bandwagon of hating someone without being fully informed about the matter.
Aside from holding Big Tech companies accountable, the government also bears responsibility for ensuring safety against OGBV. The Philippines has Republic Act 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 and Republic Act 9995 or the Anti Photo and Voyeurism Act. Despite these existing laws, there are undeniable limitations in their enactment; for instance, survivors of revenge porn can only file criminal cases against perpetrators if they are known and not under the veil of an anonymous profile. Moreover, these laws and policies are often applied only if the issue is reported. What happens to posts and comments that remain unreported?
Filipino youth speaking out against OGBV
Despite these harms and dangers, one should be reminded that the very users of social media platforms have a critical role to play in preventing OGBV. And as the biggest chunk of the online ecosystem, young Filipinos are at the forefront of being potential changemakers to combat these various forms of OGBV. Undeniably, Filipino Gen Zs and Millennials are taking the world by storm through the trends they create and their strong presence on various social media platforms. It may just be advantageous for young Filipinos to be “chronically online” since this has also allowed them to take their activism to their online timelines. One key method that young Filipinos have been using to voice out their concerns is through viral hashtags. This has been especially evident during the COVID-19 pandemic when the #LigtasBalikEskwela became the outlet for the youth to express their demands to the Philippine government regarding the transition from online to face-to-face classes.
A specific hashtag that exposed and called out various forms of gender-based violence offline and online was #HijaAko. #HijaAko trended way back in June 2020 when Filipino singer-songwriter Kakie Pangilinan spoke out against a tweet of TV personality Ben Tulfo warning “sexy ladies” to be wary of their clothing since they might be “inviting the beast”. This was Tulfo’s response to a post by the Lucban Municipal Police Station which seemingly blamed women and their clothing for their vulnerability to sexual abuse.
Kakie Pangilinan, who was 19 years old when she tweeted #HijaAko, called out how rape culture was perpetuated by patriarchal mindsets that normalize men’s sexual aggression towards women. Empowered by Kakie’s outspokenness, many young Filipinas followed suit and used this hashtag to share their stories and to speak out about the toxic culture of silencing the victim-survivors of sexual abuse as well as victim-blaming.
In the struggle to make our online spaces safer, you can also make an impact and pave the way to reduce various forms of OGBV. First and foremost, you can use your own social media platforms to start a discussion about these topics. You don’t need to have a large following to talk about your experience. An Instagram story or a Facebook post where you share that creepy DM you received or unsolicited comments about your clothing are already enough to start a discourse. Second, you can keep yourself informed and updated by following youth-led campaigns such as Ayaw Ko Pagyawa-a. Ayaw Ko Pagyawa-a, which roughly translates to “don’t play tricks on me”, is a social media campaign under the Digital Disruptors Ph project by Amnesty International Philippines that aims to raise awareness about online gender-based violence among young Filipinos. With aesthetically pleasing infographics and Gen-Z coded captions, this social media campaign wants internet-savvy youth to understand and identify what online activities are considered forms of OGBV.
Despite the growing presence of the internet and social media platforms in our daily lives, there remains a lack of initiatives that advocate for digital rights and fight against OGBV. This is your sign to use your clout-chasing abilities to make our online spaces safe. Remember: this is only just the beginning of our online journey.