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Technology and Extremism in the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda

Technology and Extremism in the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda
1st September 2020 Dr. Alexis Henshaw
In Insights

This fall marks the 20th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, the first of ten resolutions comprising the backbone of the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) Agenda. As envisioned in these documents, the WPS Agenda seeks to mainstream gender in work on conflict and conflict resolution, with special attention to four pillars: participation, prevention, protection, and relief and recovery. Action to realise WPS goals has proceeded at the national and international levels, with over 80 states to date devising National Action Plans (NAPs) that outline specific goals for the domestic implementation of WPS. Many of these plans have included not only issues directly tied to the four pillars—like including women in peace delegations, addressing sexual violence, and incorporating gender into counterterrorism programming—but also linkages to broader issues like climate change.

As the agenda enters its third decade, it is worth more explicitly considering the relationship of technology to WPS. While existing policy initiatives have generally not addressed the relationship between gender and technology, these concerns are adjacent to and intertwined with the aims of WPS. A next-generation approach to WPS could engage more deeply in addressing a number of areas in which technology stands to enable or challenge the agenda. Such issues include:

  1. The Digital Divide

Relative to the participation pillar of the WPS Agenda, the digital realm remains a space where women are often excluded. A 2018 report from the OECD estimates that the global gender gap in Internet access is 11% (with larger differentials in developing states), while women remain significantly underrepresented in technology jobs. Data from the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security and the Peace Research Institute of Oslo suggests 20% of women globally lack mobile phones, with less than half of women having access to phones in some fragile and conflict-affected states. Statistics like these are troubling given the growing importance of digital technologies. They also stand at odds with significant gains made since 2000 in both literacy and educational access for women. Given the role of technology in facilitating political engagement and development, attention to the digital divide could provide new modalities for women to offer input into peace processes and other WPS initiatives.

  1. Online Speech and Extremism

As noted in previous insights, the online space has been mobilised as a forum to promote incel ideology and other far-right movements advocating against the rights of women, people of color, and the LGBTI community. Evidence has connected online incel activity to multiple violent attacks across the United States and Canada, with additional links to failed plots in the United Kingdom. While the incel threat is being taken more seriously as a result of these events, it represents one extreme of a continuum of online violence against women.

In 2018, Amnesty International reported that 23% of the women it surveyed experienced abuse and harassment online, with harassment reported more frequently among political officeholders, women of color, women with disabilities, and women of the LGBTI community. For many women, online engagement represents a double-edged sword. While many find social media a valuable platform for connecting with others, self-promotion, and political activism, the degree of harassment they experience can lead them to self-censor or remove themselves from the space entirely.

  1. Privacy and Surveillance

Questions of privacy and the use of surveillance technology further create challenges for women. Researchers have highlighted how surveillance technologies aimed at countering extremist threats—like full body scanners and facial recognition applications—have adverse effects on women of color, those with disabilities, and transgender or nonbinary individuals. Understanding how social biases inform these technologies is crucial to responsible use.

Controlling criminal violations of privacy like revenge porn and other non-consensual pornography distributed via the Internet is a further challenge. Although some providers like PornHub have tried to facilitate the content removal process as a result of political advocacy, systems for removal are still flawed and the onus often falls on victims to seek out and petition to remove this material.

  1. Technology and Crime

The use of the Internet and technology to fund extremist organisations through criminal activity also carries specific implications for women. Islamic State provides a case study of how technology, extremism, and gender can intersect. Research published in the Journal of Global Security Studies notes that Islamic State raised up to US$21 million from the sale of Yazidi women and girls into sexual servitude and stands to make millions more off those who remain in captivity. Mobile networks and social media platforms played an important role in facilitating this slave trade, with Telegram and WhatsApp used to advertise the sale of women and children. With encrypted messaging platforms also dabbling in cryptocurrency, there are new concerns about how extremist groups that use these platforms may be able to leverage encryption and anonymity.

In each of the areas discussed above, technology has posed new and gendered challenges related to peace and security, even as it creates new opportunities. Efforts to fully incorporate and address technological challenges in the Women, Peace, and Security framework will likely require multistakeholder initiatives, with major players in technology working in concert with governments, researchers, and civil society to effect change.