The Root Of The Science Podcast

EP 134: Tabitha Wangechi, Championing for a Harassment-Free Cyber Experience for Women

February 26, 2024 Anne Chisa Season 5 Episode 134
The Root Of The Science Podcast
EP 134: Tabitha Wangechi, Championing for a Harassment-Free Cyber Experience for Women
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

In this episode, we are happy to have Tabitha Wangechi, a Digital Security Advocate from Kenya. 
She sheds light on the dark side of the internet where women are often targets to doxing, revenge pornography, and the barrage of digital harassment women face. 
Listen to this and more on the solutions available for digital harassment.

LinkedIn: Tabitha Wangechi.
Twitter: @T_Wangechi

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Anne Chisa:

The Root of the Science Podcast with your girl Anne with an E. Hello everyone, and welcome back to another episode of the Root of the Science Podcast with your girl Anne with an E. If you are listening and you are new, welcome to the show it's such a pleasure to have you on. And if you are returning, thank you so much that you can return back. Remember that you can comment, give your opinion on this week's episode on Twitter or Instagram or LinkedIn, Facebook, wherever you follow us on social media. If you haven't, please do so. Also, a reminder that we have a newsletter, so please make sure to subscribe. It's available on our social media platforms. That way, we have in-depth information on past episodes every Friday. It's a weekly newsletter, so you have the audio part as well as the written part. Now let's get into today's episode.

Anne Chisa:

Internet and social media have provided new avenues for perpetrators to engage in gender-based violence, as it offers anonymity and a wider reach compared to traditional forms of violence. The online environment allows perpetrators to target victims from a distance and often with little fear of consequences. Women and girls are most affected. Violence against women online is a persuasive threat worldwide, especially because in many countries, online violence against women is often blamed on the victim. Unesco estimates that 73% of women have experienced some type of online violence, such as harassment, doxing, revenge, pornography, stalking, rape or death threats, much of which follow victims in their offline lives. Today, we are speaking to Tabitha Wangechi, a woman's digital health activist from Kenya. She will help us understand online gender-based violence and its effects it has on women in the civic sector and other digital security and safety issues. Let's get into this episode, of course, and so much more. Hello, Tabitha, welcome to the show.

Tabitha Wangechi:

Thank you so much, Anne. I'm glad to be here.

Anne Chisa:

It is such a pleasure to have you on the show. So before we get things started, tabitha, could we just have a brief introduction from you in terms of who is Tabitha, where you currently base and, just briefly, what do you do?

Tabitha Wangechi:

Okay, first of all, I would like to thank the podcast for hosting me and I'm more than happy to share my experience with you and what I do and hopefully get around to understand some of the issues that women face in the online space. So I am a digital rights activist and I'm the founder of Digital Rural, so my journey began with you know personal experiences of witnessing and at times even being a target of online harassment.

Tabitha Wangechi:

In 2016, I left Instagram because I was hyperbullied and I was able to see that these encounters fueled my determination to address their gender based violence issues, which are more prevalent in digital spaces with advanced in technology and more platforms coming up. So I started by engaging local communities and discussing the challenges that women face online and advocating for a safer environment for women.

Anne Chisa:

Fantastic. I'm sorry that you had to go through that, but I'm glad that you know the pain had purpose to it and that, despite what you went through, you were able to make something really positive. I'll be honest with you and I think this is the case for many people who are probably listening I didn't even know there was such a thing as a digital activist, right. So you touched briefly on how you got into the space, given your own experience. But, like you know, how would somebody, if they didn't have a negative experience like yourself, how would somebody actually get into the space? How would somebody say okay, you know what? I'm a digital activist. What does that actually mean?

Tabitha Wangechi:

So it could mean different things to different people, but for me, I define it as being a champion, being a leader and being an advocate for not only women, but generally a digital rights activist, advocate for the right of all people and despite the nationality, the sex of the person and, you know, the social economic status. So to get into this space, I think it's very fundamental to first define what do I want out of this and also to try and understand what are the issues in this space. Which communities can I join? Which organizations can I work with or collaborate with in advancing my goal as a digital rights activist? So once you understand those fundamental things, then they can define your path to becoming the kind of digital rights activists you want to become, because there are so many issues in the digital rights artificial intelligence coming up, and then there's gender bias, there's gender violence, you know, there are policy issues, so it's very wide, and understanding this scope makes it easy for you to understand what you want out of this space as a digital rights activist.

Anne Chisa:

Thank you for that overview. So let's narrow in into your, your space, which is online gender based violence. And again, this is something that I suppose many people don't realize actually happens, right, because when we think of gender based violence, we think of somebody being physically assaulted or sexually assaulted, emotionally or financially. So how does it actually manifest online? How does somebody know, like okay, you know, this is actually happening to me, can you walk us? Can you walk us through that?

Tabitha Wangechi:

I'm glad to do that. I mean, online gender based violence is also very wide and, depending on how technology is evolving, there are new ways in which online gender based violence is manifesting in. Some of these ways include harassment threats, online spreading harmful content that targets, you know, women, sexual minorities and other groups of people. So some of these issues like cyber bullying, doxing or even revenge porn keep emerging. I know the other day there was a huge debate on Twitter because a gentleman went ahead and created porn associated with Tyler Swift, the famous American musician, and there was a debate on how possible is it to actually create, you know, naked images of someone without having access to more information about them? So there was even debate on whether that person can be persecuted or not. So these are emerging issues in the digital space when it comes to online gender based violence, especially against women, and you find that such actions they undermine the rights of women, especially in the digital space by violating their privacy.

Tabitha Wangechi:

It limits their freedom of expression and brings shame, and also creates an environment that deters them from fully participating in the online space. So I think this culture of perpetrating violence against women contributes to a general culture of fear and intimidation which, you know, negatively impacts women's ability to enjoy a safe and equal experience in the digital world. So more women, you know going silent, leaving the online space because of such issues.

Anne Chisa:

Yeah, I can imagine. I can imagine and I, like you rightfully said in the beginning, that because of what happened to you, you actually left Instagram. So I am, I can imagine for somebody where, if this happened to them, they wouldn't want to be in New India social media and, like you rightfully said, that it makes them not really fully participate. So you said they different forms of of online gender violence. You spoke of the, the revenge porn, for example. You spoke of trolling, etc. So you, what? What are you? What sort of work? Where do you fit in into this pace? What sort of work do you do to I don't know potentially help women or mitigate this? Can you talk us through that?

Tabitha Wangechi:

Thank, you Okay. So I love my job and that is one thing I keep telling people whenever I'm invited to speak about digital rights issues. So it basically involves organizing workshops to build the capacity of women on how they can stay safe online. I've also participated in training. I've also participated in organizing and also taking part in protests.

Tabitha Wangechi:

A few months ago, I remember we had this protest in Nairobi fighting against the increase in violence against women, both physical and online, and it was so sad and shocking to hear about. Even after the protest, there were women who were killed for participating in the protest, and some of these issues are very triggering and it's made more women to resort to digital activism. I've never seen that kind of mobilization from the grassroots level to the national level Women coming out in physical and digital phases to demand that you guys stop killing us, demand a safe physical and digital environment for us to exist as women. So the other thing I've done is to collaborate with other activists in organizing events that sensitize women and bring them together to discuss issues pertaining to their rights and freedoms when it comes to the digital space, working with other organizations to develop strategies for promoting online safety and advocating for policy changes.

Tabitha Wangechi:

So I've also participated in a lot of events. I mean, I think that is kind of my daily schedule, just finding events both online and offline that talk about some of these issues new and emerging issues, existing issues in the digital rights space and issues related to online gender based violence. So this has allowed me to share my own personal experiences, to share my insights and also to promote a broader understanding of the importance of women's digital rights, because most people don't think it's an issue. We are very few activists in this space because people do not really see the threat, they don't really understand the magnitude of the impact of violating women's digital rights. So with these campaigns, initiatives, raising awareness in events, you find that we are contributing to creating a cultural shift towards a more respectful and inclusive digital space for not only women but other genders.

Anne Chisa:

Incredible, incredible work in terms of what you're doing, and you mentioned that you host workshops and attend events. In fact, you were recently a jigsaw feed shield early adopters fellow, so can you explain what that fellowship was about and its specific intention to combat online harassment?

Tabitha Wangechi:

Actually, I found when you struggled to pronounce it, because at first I really had a challenge, you know, just saying feed shield, but anyway, we made it through.

Tabitha Wangechi:

So it's an online safety tool that was developed by jigsaw and called for Africa. And, by the way, shout out to Sarah Gowon, she was the project manager and she was really supportive throughout the process. She gave us the support that we needed as fellows to. You know, use this tool as an early adopter and really test it on Twitter. So what this tool does is that it's a very powerful web based tool that uses machine learning to filter out negative comments and trolls only on Twitter. And, interestingly, you find that feed shield is not just a standalone tool that, you know, helps women in the online space to be able to block trolls and filter out negative comments, but it is also a comprehensive, if I may call it, resource toolkit that is integrated into the platform, which houses various lessons, self-help tools, you know, games that help women to understand the broader issues related to, you know, violation of their digital rights and how they can best protect themselves.

Tabitha Wangechi:

How exactly does this work? So it's a web based tool, so once you're finding Twitter, you know when you're using Twitter. You just, you know, log in into feed shield and it automatically links to your account. Okay. So, once you link Fidship to your Twitter account, it works by using machine learning algorithm to detect and filter out negative comments, abuses, palms, trolls, and what this Fidship tool does is that it blocks these comments and makes you not to see them.

Tabitha Wangechi:

So you can choose as a user, do I want to see what these people are saying about me? Do I want to see the threats I'm receiving? You can choose to view them or not, depending on how you approach such issues. So once you do that, you can click a button that allows you to create a report of all the negative comments and trolling that you received on that platform and then you can share it with the forensic team at Ford for Africa. They have a great team of investigative forensic team that can evaluate the report and mask the trolls and let you know that.

Tabitha Wangechi:

Okay, so and so is operating under this account and the ones sending you this kind of comment. So it's a very interesting, modern tool that gives women the freedom of engaging on Twitter without being worried that I'm going to be bullied, they're going to say this about me, or isn't? This is going to happen to me. So not only do they have a forensic team to you know, review the report and, you know, give information about the kind of online violence you're going through, they also have, you know, a counseling team in a way that if you have been impacted by online violence on that platform and this is your report and if this is happening, they can be able to direct you to the specialized team of psychologists, will now give you that support to go through that process In the right way.

Anne Chisa:

That sounds absolutely fantastic. Oh my goodness, that sounds really great. So you said this was an you, you were testing it as early adopters. So am I correct in assuming that it's not readily available for everyone working?

Tabitha Wangechi:

currently. If you can test it, it will work. So, as early adopters, our work was to give feedback. You can see the areas that need improvement, but the tool is fully functional.

Anne Chisa:

Oh, and how does somebody get access to it?

Tabitha Wangechi:

Oh, you can just go through feed shields. You can go to Google and type feed shields. It's going to come as the first result and it's feed shields dot Africa. Oh fantastic. You click on that side and you can now log in and connect it to your data account.

Anne Chisa:

That's some incredible work and, who knows? To the team for developing, for developing that tool, and this is really exciting. So now I'm just going to also this is something positive and this is something that you know there's hope. But what are some of the other challenges that you've experienced so far in this, in this space of digital activism personally, and also just, yeah, just in the general online space?

Tabitha Wangechi:

Okay, I think that's a very interesting question because, as someone who is facing challenges head on, sometimes you don't expect that they're the same challenges that you're going to deal with as a person. So, women digital rights activists they face various challenges and I can say most of them resort to quitting what they're doing. And there was stories going on, especially in Kenya, that you know a famous activist was bought by the government because she stopped advocating for those issues and she didn't realize that she had expressed, that her life was in danger because of the kind of what she was doing and that for me, it's mostly intimidation and maybe threats that aim to silence you. Sometimes someone can DM you and say you're a feminist, you're pretending to be fighting for women's rights. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. But I mean just people coming up with unrealistic issues to try and silence you or intimidate you, because they can see that your work truly has an impact, because I believe our work is not in vain. The online space is very powerful in a way that you can reach anyone, you can advocate for an issue and they can get your attention and work on it.

Tabitha Wangechi:

So the other thing I think is lack of representation and gender bias. I remember I was invited to this meeting on digital rights and I was the only woman there and they were not taking me serious because they thought maybe I had escorted someone. So you find that the tech space is dominated largely by men, so women are sidelined. There's a lot of gender bias they're not taking seriously within this space and this may limit the kind of opportunities we get.

Tabitha Wangechi:

I was very offended when I attended this event it was a whole day event. I want to mention the company that organized the event, but it's in the digital rights space and I found that almost all the panelists were men, except one panel that had CEO of Tesspock, miss Florence, and I was so sad because I was like I expected more women to sit on this panel and give diverse perspectives and especially issues around women's rights. So this are some of the issues that we face and sometimes balancing your activism with your personal safety is a very huge concern because some activists may become targets of physical harm. I remember Pauline Jorogge. She's a very vocal activist in Kenya and this time she went for vacation and she posted her photo having a good time somewhere in an island, you know authorities came for her.

Tabitha Wangechi:

She was detained just by posting her photo. So you might be somewhere enjoying yourself, having a good time, but you don't know that there are certain people who are targeting you and you know you become susceptible to not only online violence but also physical violence. So you know, addressing such issues and also addressing the gender equality and opposing a great challenge, especially for women in digital rights advocacy.

Anne Chisa:

Goodness, that is yeah.

Anne Chisa:

That sounds like it's a lot to deal with and you are doing incredible work and you are very brave, because not many people can withstand that type of I wanna say heat, you know, or backlash. So, yeah, I just I admire the work that you do and I didn't realize some of the ripple effects for doing this work, so I hope that you will continue to push through despite these almost scary circumstances at times, and it's been quite interesting that, although you're fighting for this, these rights, your rights, are also being violated in the process, which is terrible, yeah, which is absolutely terrible. So, tabitha, as we are wrapping up, you know we just spoke of briefly of you know one initiative that you spoke of, but if somebody is interested and maybe they're, they want to know more about some other initiatives or strategies that could promote digital rights and safety. Could you touch on that for us as well?

Tabitha Wangechi:

Yeah, actually it's an honor to share with you some of this strategies, and I like talking more about them so that people can be aware and change their perspective, because the more people we reach, the more people we educate, you know, the safer and the better the digital platforms are. So I would say that the first and very important step is to promote online education, especially on responsible behavior and empathy. This can help people to understand the magnitude of their actions, so that if someone wants to tweet something that is not in line with the code of code conduct, they can sit back, reflect and remember how their behavior is going to impact the other person and perhaps they might change. You know their approach. So the other thing I think platforms need to strengthen their content moderation efforts, because you find that there are no better mechanisms to report online harassment and sometimes, even when you report, you get shocked because they say it's not violating the platform code of conduct. Yet you saw that you know this is clearly an offense that someone has committed against you, but then you report and the platform dismisses your concern. I mean, these are some of the big issues that we are facing because, no matter how much work we do as digital rights activists. If we don't have the support of the platforms, I mean, our work will just be watered down to almost zero or nothing. So that is a very important point of intervention.

Tabitha Wangechi:

And then the other thing is to empower online communities to stand together as one to fight online harassment. I remember during the protests, women came together as a group and they would come at anyone who would post anything that is not in line with the platform values and they would call out that person. I show that kind of solidarity which, you know, made me wish that it was an everyday thing in the platform, because nowadays you find that if someone is being attacked, harassed or harmed online, most people like to mind their business, because maybe they don't want to get themselves in trouble or, you know, they just want to keep their page clean. So it's not their business if someone else is being harassed. And then the other thing is to, you know, which I don't think most people would agree with me, because it has a very thin line between oppression and, you know, freedom of expression. So this is strengthening laws and regulations to address online harassment and gender-based violence.

Tabitha Wangechi:

So I think some of the issues we have is vagueness in our legal instruments because you find that issues such as cyberbullying, doxing or revenge porn they are not well defined in our legal frameworks. So you find that it's very easy you know it's very hard, sorry to persecute someone because if you now try to understand what they did using the lens of the legal framework, you find that it might not align with the legal framework, yet it's an offense. I don't know if that is making sense, but you find that penalties also for such offenses they are very minor. You know it's taken us if it's a petty crime. Yet some of these issues, for example, like online violence, someone can threaten you I will kill you or I will rape you, and they end up doing it and you find that it's not seen as an offense because it's not clearly stipulated in the legal framework. So these are some of the issues that you know we need to look through, review and make proper changes.

Tabitha Wangechi:

And then the other thing is we need to strengthen collaboration efforts between governments. Governments should work with civil societies, you know, even to amend some of these legal frameworks, and then technology companies need to work with advocacy groups and get feedback on some of the work that we are doing. All online gender peace, violence and online harassment and content moderation. So, once we get around this kind of collaboration and partnership, then we can create comprehensive strategies that protect individuals from online harm, while, you know, respecting freedom of expression. So I'd also like to mention that we're currently working on developing a toolkit that can help women in the digital space to stay safe by, you know, bringing a collection of resources and tools and information that can educate them on how to navigate the digital landscape with all the threats and the emerging issues that artificial intelligence is presenting. I'm really excited about that. That sounds so exciting, Tabitha.

Anne Chisa:

Thank you for sharing all of these resources and, yeah, it seems like this, there's still a long way to go in terms of implementation and the idea of collaboration, particularly on the law side. I think that's where there's a lot of gray area, but I'm sure, because the field and the space are still in the middle of the war, because the field and the space are still in its infancy and the way that technology is rapidly, rapidly changing, our hope that we can catch up in terms of, you know, these implementation of the laws and the types of policies and education of people, and this conversation, I think, is just one way that we can do that, and I hope the listeners really took heed of the information that you shared with us and I'm so grateful because I also had an opportunity to learn. So, thank you, thank you so much.

Tabitha Wangechi:

You're welcome, Annie. Thank you so much for hosting me and in case of anything, you can follow up with me and I'll be able to share more information. I have a blog. I post a lot on my page on Twitter and also on LinkedIn. Thank you so much for hosting me.

Anne Chisa:

It's a pleasure and we'll definitely share some of your links to your work so that people can get in touch and to everybody else who's tuned in. Thank you so much for listening to another episode of the Root of the Science podcast with your girl Anne with an E. Until next time, goodbye.

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