For human rights activists, Internet technologies bring both risks and benefits. Smartphones are widely used to document the abuses that activists are fighting against, as well as to store photos, recordings, and documents. Social media and messaging apps are key organising and communications tools. But even as these technologies enhance activists’ work, they also enable online threats such as surveillance and harassment.
Female activists face particularly severe online threats. Yet there has been little concerted study of how these threats affect those living in the Global South. Cyber Stewards Network (CSN) partners Colnodo, based in Bogota, Colombia and Sulá Batsú, based in San José, Costa Rica addressed this gap in the research by examining the threats that women activists face as they use digital technology. Colnodo studied national groups working to advance female politicians and journalists in Colombia, while Sulá Batsú’s research followed two rural land rights activists groups focused on the negative impact of pineapple monoculture in Costa Rica.
Both Colnodo and Sulá Batsú embraced a participatory research model in which activist groups were active partners in a process of knowledge exchange. The research followed a mixed methods approach, combining in-depth interviews, surveys, social media analysis, and a virtual ethnography of the activists’ online networks to examine how these groups use information technologies in their activism and the risks that they are then exposed to.
Findings from this study underscore that online and offline threats should not be viewed as separate phenomena, but rather as overlapping and mutually reinforcing. For example, a worker who appears in Facebook photos of an activist meeting may lose his or her job. Equally, economic hardship can reduce the time and resources available to practice basic online security. Digital surveillance can also lead to physical violence or intimidation.
Despite differences between the two countries, both case studies found that female activists face multiple risks. Their activism brings the ire of powerful interests, while their public leadership roles violate prevailing gender norms. In addition, their economic conditions (e.g., poverty) and regional or ethnic origin (e.g., as members of religious or ethnic minority groups) also further heightened their vulnerability.
Building on the knowledge gleaned from the study, Colnodo and Sulá Batsú then designed and delivered online safety training materials tailored to the needs of activists in their respective countries. These resources—combined with other advocacy activities that Colnodo and Sulá Batsú are undertaking on the fundamentals of digital security—aim to increase the online safety awareness and capacity of activists.
Costa Rica has seen an aggressive expansion of pineapple plantations in recent decades, which have occupied vast amounts of land and polluted local water sources. Some communities have had to rely on water deliveries by truck for nearly 15 years. Activists have worked to document the effects of pineapple production on local communities and push for better environmental and labour practices.
Sulá Batsú’s research focused on women activists playing leading roles in the movement against pineapple companies. Their work involved organising communities, sharing information, and collecting evidence for legal complaints against pineapple companies. Smartphones were commonly used for all these activities, along with social networks such as Facebook.
Rights activists in Costa Rica operate in a dangerous environment and Sulá Batsú has documented some of these threats. For instance, conservation groups have recorded dozens of attacks on activists in the last two decades, including murders, robberies, and assaults. Many more have received threats, both online and offline. Lawsuits have been brought against activists, frequently for alleged defamation of pineapple companies. Economic pressure has also been applied to activists, including firing them, blacklisting them and their families from future employment, and attempting to block them from obtaining land for agriculture.
While the women activists involved in the study reported being concerned about digital security, Sulá Batsú found a low level of familiarity with digital security practices, such as using complex passphrases for password protection and backing up important information. Posts about group meetings often revealed members’ identities, photos, and contact information, as well as the location of upcoming events, in an environment where such disclosures could put people at risk.
To encourage conversation and learning on improving online safety, Sulá Batsú developed a board game (in Spanish). The game board features an illustration of a typical street scene in which 14 potentially risky behaviours are hidden. Once participants spot the risk, they are challenged to select the threats that might arise from a deck of ‘threat cards’ and practices that might reduce those threats from a deck of ‘practice cards’. The format enables players to explore multiple valid approaches to every scenario in order to encourage a participatory approach to learning in a positive environment.
Colnodo describes Colombia as a country where structural violence and discrimination against women persist, where women are underrepresented in government, and where women’s rights issues still struggle to advance. In their research, Colnodo partnered with a group whose mandate is to advance women’s representation in media and politics, and to fight violence against women. These groups used the Internet extensively to gather information, coordinate their members, and communicate.
Several of the women surveyed by Colnodo reported having experienced online threats, including harassment, defamation, and theft of information. Many more identified online safety as an important concern, and reported feeling unsure of their digital safety skills. Colnodo also observed risky online behaviour, including postings of personal information and locations of potentially vulnerable activists, and failing to encrypt or password protect devices.
Based on their research findings, Colnodo developed a range of training materials to meet the needs of activists in Colombia. First, they created a four-week online digital safety course, which 43 students from across Latin America completed. They also organised an intensive in-person workshop for 12 Colombian activists at an annual women’s rights conference. Finally, they incorporated the curriculum from these sessions into a training manual, which was offered in print, USB, and mobile formats.
About Sulá Batsú
Sulá Batsú is a cooperative, formed in 2005, with the goal of strengthening social organisations, community networks, movements, and companies. It uses a variety of methods and processes to promote social learning and knowledge exchange between groups.
Colnodo is an NGO, founded in 1994, which works to improve people’s quality of life and strengthen communities through the strategic use of digital technology. Its main areas of work are free software, sustainable development, and gender and communications technology.
About this research
This research project by Colnodo and Sulá Batsú was made possible due to support provided by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC).