All of a sudden...Research on digital violence against LGBTQI+ communities in Turkiye
Digital gender-based violence has been the topic of many studies in Türkiye, and yet only a few of those have evaluated the issue through a queer feminist perspective. The negative online experiences of LGBTQI+ are therefore often neglected. By uncovering these neglected experiences, the research explores the digital violence targeted against LGBTQI+ users. Through a mixed methodology, the study aims to understand the dynamics of digital gender-based violence. In a political context where laws act against gender equality and against the LGBTQI+ communities, the study offers possible strategies and recommendations to all the parties involved in the protection and prevention of digital violence including LGBTQI+ organisations, human rights organisations, the relevant digital platforms and the LGBTQI+ community as a whole.
All of a sudden, I found myself encountering a journalist whose existence was totally unknown to me until that moment, and the audience they mobilised. It was upon the advocacy and training activities I conducted, and the materials I produced, that this targeting started. It is a state of bafflement, full of panic, fearfulness and anxiety, apart from much anger. I was subject to harsh insults by the journalist who started this whole process of targeting and violence, and by the audience she invited to use the hateful discourse against me. In addition to insults, words such as “perverts, deviants, and paedophiles”, the violent threats were intense in private messages and comments made under the posts I had shared before. These included threats of physical violence and sexual violence in particular. I cut my social media visibility for a while. Screenshots of the photos I once shared were taken before I protected my online accounts. These were also disseminated online. Then I got threatening phone calls. They also made the process extra hurtful for me. I felt like they were over my shoulders. I even wondered if I was safe at home.
These words are from our interview with an LGBTQI+ activist after they were subject to a smear campaign by a journalist who organised the homophobic campaign. She organised many Islamist groups, and this campaign even led to a court case against an NGO with which our interviewee was working off and on. The hate campaign started on Twitter but quickly spiralled into phone threats and an attempted physical attack.
The interviewee’s phrasing, “all of a sudden”, lent itself to name our research on digital violence against LGBTQI+ communities in Türkiye. The research, supported by the Feminist Internet Research Network (FIRN), seeks to expose the extent and effects of digital violence targeting LGBTQI+ communities in the country. To this end, we have used literature review, survey, in-depth interview and focus group interview methods together.
According to ILGA (International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Trans and Intersex Association) Europe Rainbow Map and Index 2022 , the umbrella organisation of more than 600 LGBTQI+ organisations from Europe and Central Asia, Türkiye is the second worst country in the region when it comes to LGBTQI+ rights.
The absence of legislation in Türkiye to prohibit discrimination against LGBTQI+ people and promote equality, leaves the community legally vulnerable in accessing basic human rights such as employment, access to goods and services, education, health, travel and freedom of settlement. State institutions established to ensure equality have no programmes or public policy regarding protection of LGBTQI+ communities. Likewise, the lack of regulation of hate crimes that LGBTQI+ people are severely, systematically and constantly exposed to prevents them enjoying their basic human rights, including the right to life.
Since hate speech has been originating directly from public authorities in the last three years, hate crimes and discourse against LGBTQI+ communities by society and public officials have also increased systematically.
In civil society, the right to assembly and demonstration, and many collective activities and events for LGBTQI+ people, have been systematically and unlawfully prevented for many years, and new prohibitions put into effect despite the courts intervening in these unlawful practices. In this way, even if each ban on events is annulled, new ones take their place. Events cannot be organised until the court decides, so events are blocked, and a policy of intimidation is put into place.
So, when state authorities themselves orchestrate hate speeches and ban LGBTQI+ Pride Parades and events, what is the situation in online spaces? That was our main question, and through our research, we have witnessed that online spaces are two-sided mirrors that reflect hate and discrimination and cause more hatred in physical spaces.
In our research, we explored hate speech and crimes in the digital space as part of digital violence. However, we wanted to delve into hate speech and crimes separately because of the prevalence of both these acts of violence against the LGBTQI+ community.
In 2019 in Türkiye, a vast majority of the hate crimes triggered by homophobia and transphobia were committed in schools, homes and neighbourhoods, public transportation or stops, at the cafés and bars, and on the streets and other public places. On average, each victim experienced violation of rights more than two times: 117 respondents cited 267 types of violation of rights. Generally, hate speech based on sexual orientation and sexual identity, and threats of excessive violence (torture) were accompanied by "more severe" violations. Physical violence was the second most frequent. In three of five cases, perpetrators consisted of two or more people. In 32 of 117 cases, there were more than three perpetrators. In a nutshell, it would not be an exaggeration to say that hate crimes targeting the LGBTQI+ community in Türkiye mostly manifest as lynching attempts.
The study showed us that the violence against LGBTQI+ individuals on the internet begins with insults and swearing. It escalates to threats, blackmail, harassment, persistent stalking, using names assigned at birth, sharing personal information and images without consent, restriction of internet access, and hate campaigns. The person is often subject to digital violence more than once. Targeting and hate campaigns that start all of a sudden become widespread very rapidly through the common involvement of perpetrators with diverse affiliations, acquiring a dimension that threatens even the physical safety of the target.
The most striking result of our research is that nine out of every 10 LGBTQI+ persons are subject to digital violence and they witness hate speech almost on a daily basis on the internet.
According to Türkiye Digital Violence Research by the Common Knowledge and Communication Association in 2021, one out of every five people in Türkiye is subject to digital violence. Even though the methodology and the markers of the research differ from ours, they give us a sense of the scale of digital violence where sexual orientation and gender identity are involved. Our own results indicate that nine out of 10 LGBTQI+ persons are victims of digital violence. All in all, it is fair to say that digital violence rates increase when the victims belong to LGBTQI+ communities.
During the interviews and the survey, participants repeatedly described pro-government agencies as perpetrators. Those unfamiliar with the erosion of LGBTQI+ rights in Türkiye may find it surprising. However, since 2015, the government has a clear position on the matter: banning LGBTQI+ events, police attacks on Pride Marches and a defamation campaign targeting the LGBTQI+ community. The high rate and the characteristic of the digital violence can be interpreted as a reflection of government policies. The authorities’ rhetoric translates to public policies that discriminate against LGBTQI+ communities.
During an in-depth interview, interviewee AAA (34), a bisexual, cis woman living in Ankara, explained how organised hate attacks led to her prosecution. The case she referred to was one of many hate-mongering campaigns targeting the LGBTQI+ community. April 23 is a national holiday in Türkiye dedicated to children. In 2020, LGBTQI+ people organised an online campaign to defend children's rights. They shared their childhood photos with empowering messages. The backlash was swift. Pro-government media and political actors started targeting LGBTQI+ people. In her own words, because she said “there are LGBTQI+ children”, they labelled our interviewee as a “child abuser” and “pervert”:
Following my drawing named “LGBTQI+ children exist”, I have been subject to explicit hate speech. There were overt threats. A citizen complained to the Presidency's Communication Centre (CİMER) about my drawing and I had to go to give a statement. The complaint included these sentences: “Whatever you do, remove this pervert person from the society, annihilate her", and the prosecutor's office considered this complaint as worthy to be investigated. Such a shame that the subject of the investigation is “child sexual abuse”. This crime can only be brought as part of the investigation in cases of real sexual abuse in the Turkish Penal Code (TPC). It is very sad that my drawing and the artistic freedom of expression becomes worthy of investigation for this. In addition, several individuals and institutions who shared my drawing have also been investigated.
When asked about the perpetrators of violence on social media, 239 participants answered, “People unknown to me.” Based on the responses to this question in which multiple answers were allowed, the perpetrators consist of troll accounts (160 cases), bot accounts (70 cases), friends (64 cases), someone from school (56 cases), partner or ex-partner (54), politicians (54 cases), journalists (41 cases), academics (30 cases), corporate accounts of media organisations (30 cases), corporate accounts of political parties (27 cases), social media influencers (26 cases), relatives (25 cases) and public administrators (22 cases). The reason we have allowed multiple answers stems is because in most cases, the perpetrators were more than one person and their identities were diverse.
These results can be interpreted as follows: the online perpetrators of violence against LGBTQI+ people are mostly unidentified. Similarly, the report prepared following a forum, Online Abuse and Gender-Based Violence, stated that most of the digital violence is carried out by using anonymous accounts or accounts containing pseudonyms or fake names, thereby making it difficult to identify the perpetrators.
In cases where the identity is known to the target, a significant percentage of the perpetrators consists of politicians, journalists and academics, and also people from their social circles such as friends, family and partners.
Participants’ responses to our open-ended question, “Who were the groups organising the hate campaigns?” indicate the diversity of the perpetrators. Among the most recurring responses are: politicians affiliated with the ruling party, pro-government newspapers and journalists, political Islamists, ultra-nationalists, nationalists, right-wingers, religious communities, the minister of interior affairs and the Directorate of Religious Affairs. The responses reveal that, unlike digital violence in a general sense, in the case of hate speech and hate crimes, the perpetrators’ identities and credentials are explicit and there is often a political motive. To wrap it up:
- Nine out of 10 LGBTQI+ persons are subject to digital violence.
- The violence they are subject to on the internet begins with insults and swearing. It escalates to threats, blackmail, harassment, persistent stalking, using names assigned at birth, sharing of personal information and images without consent, restriction of internet access and hate campaigns.
- A person is often subject to digital violence more than once.
- Digital violence and hate campaigns are not limited to the virtual environment; they escalate to physical and judicial violence against LGBTQI+ people.
- Perpetrators of violence against LGBTQI+ individuals on the internet are mostly anonymous. In cases where their identities are known, a significant percentage comprises people from the target’s social circles such as friends, family and partners, as well as politicians, journalists and academics. The perpetrators can be broadly categorised as: political parties, politicians, media organisations, journalists, and academics.
- According to our research, digital violence against LGBTQI+ communities mostly occurs on Twitter and Instagram.
- Research findings also show that digital violence damages the mental health of LGBTQI+ people.
- To counter such digital violence, given their mistrust of current redressal mechanisms, the targets can do little but give up their own freedom of expression, resort to self-censorship, and close or protect their accounts.
- LGBTQI+ individuals witness hate speech almost on a daily basis on the internet. Consequently, they experience anger, unhappiness and feeling threatened and unsafe, leading to loneliness and loss of self-worth.
- Hate campaigns targeting LGBTQI+ organisations also create such feelings among LGBTQI+ people.
- Targeting and hate campaigns that start all of a sudden spread very rapidly through the common involvement of perpetrators with diverse affiliations, acquiring a dimension that threatens even the physical safety of the targeted persons.
- The most common reason cited for shutting down the social media accounts of LGBTQI+ persons is “Community Rules” while no explanation was provided for a third of account shutdowns.