The key to safe digital spaces in turbulent times

This week, Indonesians will vote in a general election following a period of divisive campaigning. In times of political uncertainty, it’s all the more crucial that girls have access to the services that help them make choices about their own lives. Here Khwezi Magwaza, Girl Effect's Editorial Director, explains the importance of creating safe online spaces and reliable content for girls when their socio-political climate is in flux and fake news is on the rise.

Springster is a mobile-first global brand that connects marginalised and vulnerable girls around the world. One of the countries in which it operates is Indonesia, where girls have relatively good access to mobile. However there is an increasingly conservative and constantly fluctuating socio-political environment. A widespread culture of shaming and tale-telling makes it difficult to provide online safe spaces for girls, and media censorship and a rise in fake news only serve to reinforce gender inequality and harmful social norms. Girls are often afraid to tell anybody if they’ve been abused online for fear of being shamed for going on a particular site or using their phone at all.

The challenge for Girl Effect is to operate within this space in a way that respects the cultural context girls live in but is also reflective of girls’ lives, interests, and needs. Preachy or dull content will not be of interest, but if we are insensitive to the wider culture we run the risk of government or gatekeepers preventing girls from accessing the services we provide. To mitigate this we work with partners locally who can help us understand the changing political, social and digital climate, and review our content and comment threads. This helps create useful content and remove stories that are no longer relevant or appropriate.

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We are increasingly going to the spaces where girls already are, like Instagram and Facebook, aiming to be a source of reliable, relevant information often amid a sea of fake news. We can’t ultimately control how third parties approach privacy, but it’s important for us to be responsive to girls in these places, and it’s our duty to safeguard the girls we engage with. For example, whether girls are accessing content through the Springster site or a social media platform, trained moderators are always on hand to answer their queries and look out for harmful or inappropriate content. The moderators are local young women who are trained to understand the nuances of how girls operate online, the challenges they face and the tricks they come up with to overcome these challenges, such as using memes and emojis. And Springster content also covers digital literacy, empowering girls with tips and tricks to keep themselves safe online, like what information to reveal about themselves and how to block unwanted accounts.

To ensure access for as many girls as possible, we make sure we build our own technology with the lowest denominator phone in mind. More often than not this means we are thinking about feature phones rather than smartphones. Privacy is a top priority so we don’t collect any more data about her than we need to, which means she’s safe from any kind of exposure and nothing she shares online can be linked to her offline if she doesn’t want it to be. We give her a space to express herself in a way that doesn’t put her in danger within her community.

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We want to empower girls to push boundaries while working within the norms of their culture. In Indonesia this is particularly relevant to the LGBT community where there are many restrictions. We have to walk that fine line of making sure we’re inclusive and using gender-neutral language, without condoning anything that is counter-cultural.

Digital technology, and especially social media, provide huge opportunities to create spaces online where girls can safely connect with services. Girls are already logging on, and we must meet her there with the support she needs - while being respectful of the culture in which she lives. The answer is to work with girls, to understand her needs, the views of her community and government, and the social, political, and economic situation she finds herself in. If we create services based on listening and understanding, they’ll be truly useful to girls, as tools to empower her to reach her full potential.