After the storm: How to restore policy dialogue and supportive discourse against GBV online in Bulgaria
The internet played a key role in the stormy anti-gender rights backlash in Bulgaria, after the heated campaign against the ratification of the Istanbul Convention in 2018.
Gender-phobic hate speech was generated largely on social media, mostly on Facebook, as well as on some popular news sites. This has had a double negative effect. First, it crucially amplified negative public attitudes against gender rights. And second, the proliferation of hateful rhetoric incited online gender-based violence (GBV) in itself.
The research focuses on the effects of the heated campaign against the ratification of the Istanbul Convention in Bulgaria in terms of gender-based violence. Since the internet played a key role in this stormy anti-gender rights backlash in 2018, this research report aimed at finding out how internet technologies facilitate or prevent gender-based violence (GBV) and how dominant anti-gender rights attitudes could be reversed with the help of internet communications.
The research was conducted by BlueLink, in cooperation with the Media Democracy Foundation, Gender Alternatives Foundation and independent researchers. The expert team of authors and contributors consisted of: Nikoleta Daskalova (research lead), Svetla Encheva, Rada Elenkova, Milena Kadieva, Pavel Antonov and Todor Yalamov. The cover illustration of this report was done by Betina Gankova.
BlueLink is a foundation registered in the public interest in Bulgaria with the mission to uphold civil society, democracy, shared European values and environmental sustainability. The foundation strives to achieve its purpose by supporting internet networking, public interest journalism, policy advocacy and research.
BlueLink has been engaged with activities concerning women’s rights and internet technologies since 2003, providing a portal for strategic information exchange on women's rights, minorities and youth until 2010. The organisation supported journalistic articles on women’s rights issues within the BlueLink virtual newsroom (2017 and 2018) and studied the processes, roots and consequences of online hate speech against civil society activists in Bulgaria (2018). BlueLink has been a member of the Association for Progressive Communications since 2000 and joined the Feminist Internet Research Network in 2019.
Research question, rationale and objectives
What we observe is that, since 2018, advocacy and policy-making against GBV have been seriously hampered. What was the role of the internet in this process?
In 2018, there was a heated campaign in Bulgaria’s public sphere against the ratification of the Council of Europe Convention for Prevention and Combating of Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (known as the Istanbul Convention). The campaign involved parliamentary political parties such as the nationalist United Patriots of the ruling coalition and the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party. Policy advisors, non-governmental organisations, religious and ultra-conservative groups, as well as media outlets further fuelled agitation against the convention. This resulted in a dominant public opinion against the adoption of the document. Public debates were heated and based on widespread disinformation around the meaning of the word “gender”, a term that does not have an established equivalent in the Bulgarian language. At the heart of the agitation was a potent negative discourse towards gender and the rights of sexual minorities. Misogynist, homophobic and transphobic messages became mainstream. Finally, the Bulgarian constitutional court ruled that the concepts “gender” and “gender identity” were irrelevant within the Bulgarian legal system and that the convention was not compatible with the country’s constitution.
The internet played a key role in the stormy anti-gender backlash. Gender-phobic hate speech was generated largely on social media, mostly on Facebook, as well as on some popular news sites. This has had a double negative effect. First, it crucially amplified negative public attitudes against gender rights. And second, the proliferation of hateful rhetoric incited online GBV in itself.
This research project focuses on the effects of the anti-gender campaign in Bulgaria in terms of GBV. What we observe is that, since 2018, advocacy and policy-making against GBV have been seriously hampered. What was the role of the internet in this process? The research is designed to answer the questions of whether internet technologies (including social networks and online media) facilitate or prevent GBV in Bulgaria and how dominant anti-gender rights attitudes could be reversed with the help of internet communications. Our ultimate goal is to cultivate a perspective that could possibly restore policy dialogue and build up supportive discourse against GBV in the country.
Feminist methods of data collection and analysis
In the light of reflexivity and standpoint awareness, we should say that our project is not unbiased. Although we promote dialogue among stakeholders, including with proponents of anti-gender rights movements, we clearly stand for women’s and queer persons’ rights.
The research is based on a combination of several approaches that complement each other and allow data validation.
Review of literature and documents
In order to analyse the structural factors affecting the discourse on GBV in the country and the complexity of how use of the internet relates to GBV and anti-gender rights attitudes, we examined publications in the areas of: legislation and online regulation; public discourse and hate speech; feminism and gender issues; political environment and civic activism. The review included literature published in the last decade (2010 to 2019) which allowed us to trace the developments prior to, during, and shortly after the burst of the 2018 Istanbul Convention debate.
Analysis of online narratives
We analysed the construction of important messages in online communications in three thematic areas relevant to the research topic: representations of LGBTIQ people; domestic violence and GBV; a case study on a political scandal that took place during the implementation of the research and was caused by the non-consensual publication of pornographic pictures of the girlfriend of a mayoral candidate. The scope of observation covered the top eight news sites (according to the Alexa ranking as of September 2019) for the period of 1 January to 30 September 2019. We extracted a set of key narratives that framed the online media agenda on the subject of gender and GBV and juxtaposed the findings with the agendas of the online channels of particular risk in disseminating anti-gender rights messages as identified in the literature review (social networks, “yellow”, and nationalistic online platforms).
We conducted 20 in-depth interviews with two types of respondents: on one hand people who were facing (online) GBV and persons at high risk of exposure to it, and, on the other, conservative-minded individuals with sexist, homophobic, transphobic, etc. online behaviour. The first group of participants were our main focus. In the selection process, we took into account the intersection of multiple vulnerable identities, some of the respondents being of sexual and/or ethnic and/or religious minorities. We combined purposive sampling and snowball sampling technique in selecting the participants. For the second type of respondent, we reached people who were either local opinion leaders spreading anti-gender messages on social media, or internet users influenced by such people who were vocal online. The attitudes within this sample of respondents varied from banal sexism to radical intolerance, at least expressed verbally, towards feminists and LGBTIQ persons. We talked with people with anti-gender views in order to provide a broader and more nuanced picture on the matter.
The profiles of the respondents in terms of professional engagement cover a wide range of areas: human rights activism, law, media and communications, science, education, corporate business, psychology and medical services, technology and engineering and others.
Our own engagement in gender rights activism was very helpful in allowing us to safely contact appropriate participants. Even the respondents with the strongest sexist and homophobic inclinations reacted positively when asked kindly to share their opinions and respected our research efforts. In the position of researchers-as-supplicants we tried to deal with the asymmetrical power relations between researchers and those researched and not to treat them merely as sources of information but to value their views, no matter whether we agreed with them or not.
We conducted three focus groups; with journalists and online communicators, with experts from institutions and NGOs and with activists. Again, when recruiting participants, we relied on both purposive sampling and the snowballing technique. Each group provided different opinions and insights to the other two. The strongest in-group consensus and like-mindedness was among the activists.
The focus groups were moderated by our research team member Svetla Encheva. Being an LGBTIQ activist herself, she admitted that at some moments it was quite hard for her to remain calm and to appear unbiased during the discussions.
Expert elicitation workshop
In addition to the described qualitative methods, we organised an expert elicitation workshop with key stakeholders identified in the course of the research. The purpose of the discussion was twofold – external verification of the findings and the stimulation of policy dialogue for the prevention of online GBV. The workshop was attended by women’s and LGBTIQ rights organisations, state institutions (The Anti-Discrimination Commission, The Ministry of Education and Science, the Cybercrime Department at ministry of the interior, The Ministry of Labor and Social Policy), activists, researchers, lawyers.
We should admit that using such a rich set of methods was a challenge for the research team. Each method generated interesting and important findings, some of them going beyond the narrow scope of the concrete research questions but still related to GBV. Integrating and wrapping up all the data for the purpose of the current report inevitably meant having to present some conclusions too succinctly. What we are especially concerned about is that we have to leave out many of the personal stories, opinions and reflections we accumulated.
In the light of reflexivity and standpoint awareness, we should say that our project is not unbiased. Although we promote dialogue among stakeholders, including with proponents of anti-gender rights movements, we clearly stand for women’s and queer persons’ rights. That is why in analysing the results we are unevenly prioritising the communications of the survivors of (online) GBV compared with the heteronormative masculinist arguments. After all, we are lead by the moral rationale that the GBV is unacceptable. To us, our research has some important political dimensions – our aim is that its results and further use could empower women and LGBTIQ people in order to make their online environment more humanistic.
Empathy, respect and awareness of our own positionality were the leading ethical principles we tried to adhere to in communicating with the respondents. We tried to avoid any violation of the participants –not only their privacy and safety, but also their emotions. We have taken into account the intersectionality of some of the participant’s identities. We respected the participant’s rights of self-identification. We have also encoded our research data.
Discussion about research findings
The analysis shows a high level of correspondence between the anti-gender messages transmitted by the mainstream news on the internet and the “gender ideology” rhetoric generated by opinion leaders and end users on social media.
As a result of the context analysis we identified several key factors that hinder policy-making against online GBV.
Above all, there is a lack of a legal definition of GBV. There is currently no legal recognition and no criminalisation of acts of online GBV. There is also a lack of provision on gender-based hate speech. Thus, the prosecution of this form of violence is problematic. The overall situation has been made even more complicated by the decision of the Bulgarian constitutional court concerning the unconstitutionality of the Istanbul Convention. Against this background state officials, lawyers and NGO workers confirm that in practice cyber GBV is extremely difficult to detect, prove and respond to because of the lack of a legal basis for criminal investigation.
Discriminatory public and media discourse
In the past few years, hate speech in public discourse has increased to a high level, the main targets being ethnic and sexual minorities, and the main channels – social networks, online discussion forums, tabloid outlets and the media channels of far-right parties. In addition, recent media campaigns for discrediting NGOs and human rights activists have expanded aggressive rhetoric and have led to a shrinking public space for the articulation of arguments in support of gender equality and gender rights. In the last couple of decades, heteronormative and homophobic media representation has associated homosexuality, above all in men, with criminal inclinations, pedophilia, dirtiness and the like. Our research into online media channels indicates the scope of demonised subjects has widened to include queer and transgender people as well as feminists. The current focus, as in the other anti-gender campaigns in Europe, is on the perceived “threats” brought about by LGBTIQ people to a universally and consensually vulnerable category – children.
With a few exceptions, the content analysis shows that the representation practices of the leading news sites in the country build, explicitly or indirectly, anti-gender narratives. In the most drastic cases, media outlets demonstrate openly aggressive editorial policies against gender rights. The antipathy involves mockery, humiliation, shaming, repulsion, etc. The strategy of demonising queer people uses significations of pathology, immorality, and the desecration of Christian values. Messages of this kind are authored by the given news site itself and/or by politicians or other public figures. Also, the labelling of “gender” is actively signified as a multivalent insult. All this is incorporated in the pursuit of commercial profit. The “gender” topic is being framed and sold as a scandal. What is especially disturbing is the media “selling” of GBV. Some leading news sites publish shocking pictures and evocative headlines to depict victims or alleged perpetrators of GBV. The media quoting abusers’ threats and ways of committing a violent act also takes place. In some cases, news sites themselves incite GBV.
Our content analysis also indicates certain risks arising from the online media that generally adhere to more serious, balanced and fact-based reporting. Although such news outlets are inclined to interview women’s and LGBTIQ rights activists and to flag cases of domestic and GBV, news editors would usually feel obliged “to keep a balance” and to provide a platform for “two opposing viewpoints”. Thus, homophobic public figures are opposed to gender rights activists in a distorted understanding of pluralism. As a result, human rights arguments are not only questioned but also undermined and even mingled with hate speech.
Finally, the analysis shows a high level of correspondence between the anti-gender messages transmitted by the mainstream news on the internet and the “gender ideology” rhetoric generated by opinion leaders and end users on social media. The ubiquity of such an agenda inevitably reduces sensitivity to GBV and opens up doors to its online manifestations.
Hostile political environment and social stereotypes
Discriminatory public discourse has been blooming in a social climate characterised by phenomena such as the rise of a neo-conservative nationalistic ideology, unifying nationality with ethnicity and religiosity; solid social prejudices against vulnerable groups (gender, sexual and ethnic minorities); social and economic insecurities (poverty, unemployment, marginalisation) leading to threatened, subordinated masculinities and a symbolic construction of a hegemonic “traditional Bulgarian masculinity” based on neo-patriarchal values and the negative public perception of feminism per se.
Instability of activism in the area of women’s rights
Although it was one of the strongest in Europe in the early 20th century, the Bulgarian women’s movement experienced ambiguous progress in the periods that followed. One of the results was the lack of continuous and sustainable feminist activism. In the last three decades, the women’s movement has been shaped mostly as a professionalised field of educated women occupied in NGOs which are financially dependent on foreign donors and the state. Since the mid 1990s, domestic violence and violence against women have been among the central issues addressed by such NGOs. Researchers argue, though, that these forms of violence have been prevailingly considered as an individual or social problem, and not as an economic or gender-based one. In the present situation of anti-gender attitudes the activism in women’s rights is even more unstable, because the funding as well as the field work of feminist NGOs has become much more problematic. In the aftermath of the 2018 agitation against the Istanbul Convention, some NGOs have removed the word “gender” from their names in order to mitigate the negative attitudes they face.
Reversing anti-gender rights attitudes by the use of information and communications technologies is challenging and problematic...The most important work, according to the research results, is to be done offline, in face-to-face communications.
Among others, these structural factors intermingle and reinforce each other, resulting in stagnated policymaking in the fields of gender rights and protection against all forms of GBV.
The described structural deficiencies imply a rather pessimistic view on our leading research question of whether the internet prevents or stimulates GBV. The online environment provides a set of conditions for the incitement of GBV. The data collected via personal interviews and group discussions, on the other hand, does not necessarily confirm this statement. Actually, the question itself is questioned by most of the respondents. “The internet is just a tool and as such can be used both ways” is a leading argument shared by the persons we interviewed. However, there are some noteworthy nuances and controversies.
According to some of the respondents, people have the freedom to create different (anonymous) identities online, which provides room for the manifestation of more aggressive behavior and/or re-victimisation. Others claim the internet provides “a possibility of resistance” and mobilisation against violence as well as an environment for mutual support.
Reversing anti-gender rights attitudes by the use of information and communications technologies is challenging and problematic. The instruments for producing hate and violence are way too powerful and the efforts of activists, NGOs, experts and journalists is under constant attack. The most important work, according to the research results, is to be done offline, in face-to-face communications. Examples of this are lobbying, making allies, grassroots activism, providing support to victims of GBV, educating, debunking prejudices – the internet could be used as a supplementary tool here but not the only one.
Research recommendations and input for policy advocacy
The research leads to several recommendations in terms of the prevention of GBV and support for gender rights politics with the help of internet communications. A curated selection of recommendations proposed by respondents and stakeholders includes:
• Addressing GBV in a wider context with a focus on violence
• Avoiding generalisations
• Using popular and evocative discourse
• Telling fact-based personal stories
• Disseminating educational and awareness campaigns targeted at the “moderate middle”
• Referring to human rights activism as a positive national feature, not an anti-Bulgarian one
• Constructing alternative discourses online
• Being active in the channels used by young people
• Encouraging better use of visual formats
• Implementing an online system for instant alerts in cases of GBV
• Creating safe spaces online for people affected by GBV – such groups can provide legal advice, psychological counselling and emotional support
• Providing peer and/or public support to people experiencing online GBV and public exposure of the abuser (if possible and appropriate)
• Promoting self-regulation and moderation of online content with the assistance of end users.
This list of proposals sums up the needs of activists and victims of online abuse based on their own reflections. However, it is above all the law that should first be reformed, in order to guarantee the prosecution of acts of GBV, including those occuring in the online environment. Also, there is a need for full and reliable data and statistics on the dimensions of GBV in the country.