BANGKOK, Thailand – "Eh ‘di gang-bangin yan para hindi kakagat (Let’s gang bang her so she cannot bite back)”
“Magkano per hour? (What is your rate per hour?)”
“Sarap kantutin (It would be delicious to f*ck her)”
These were not the kind of comments Nicole De Castro expected after she joined the protest against the burial of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos at the National Heroes’ Cemetery who died more than 27 years ago.
The issue of the Marcos burial at the National heroes’ cemetery was important because the move, according to anti-Marcos protesters, legitimized the hundreds of extrajudicial killings that happened during the martial law.
“When I saw the gang rape threats, of course, I became sad and emotional. But I was disappointed because there was so much injustice and anger manifested not just in the online harassment but also against the protest,” De Castro said.
These online comments were just the tip of the iceberg that Nicole De Castro experienced after a photograph of her during the protest went which went viral across the Philippines.
The comments started coming in after a photo comparing a young anti-Marcos protesters against an old Marcos supporters was posted online. Nicole De Castro happened to be the young woman in the picture. The post highlighted what many perceive the difference between the young anti-Marcos protesters and old Marcos supporters.
The controversial post triggered a series of misogynistic comments objectifying and threatening De Castro. While these comments were deleted already, screenshots of the vile comments remained online.
It started with a Facebook user who described De Castro as a “future porn star.” He, later, added a comment saying, “Come to papa, I'll fill your mouth, and your pockets, too."
Another online abuser asked how much her hourly rate would be while others fantasized how “delicious” it would be to have her on bed.
The comments, for De Castro, were disturbing because it reduced the discussion about the Marcos burial to a mere display of misogyny.
“I am disappointed because there is still so much justice that needs to be given to the victims of martial law and also to women like me who were harassed online,” De Castro said in an interview with the Youth Newsroom for Case4Space.
For De Castro, the comments that she received online reflect a bigger problem that exists offline: the rape culture and gender-based violence that she argues persists in the Philippine culture.
“Rape culture is really ingrained in our society, unfortunately. It’s sad how there’s still some people who think in a backward way, believing that they have the right to belittle or sexualize women as if they are objects,” De Castro noted.
PH’s rape culture and online hate speech
Rape culture and harassment against women have been a constant issue in the Philippines.
In early 2016, a Filipino senator was criticized after his comment blaming a rape victim for drinking excessively and wearing supposedly provocative clothing. It was the woman's fault she was raped, he said.
Recently, Filipino lawmakers also mocked the private love affair of a Filipino female senator who is currently on trial for her alleged involvement with the drug trade. Filipino netizens said that the lawmakers’ line of questioning which had sexual undertones was unnecessary in a public forum.
De Castro’s experience with online harassment highlights the merging of the rape culture in the Philippines with an equally pressing issue: online hate speech.
In the Philippines, the online harassment peaked during the recently held presidential elections in May 2016.
The country saw, for example, how fake online reports on drug-related crimes were propagated to shape the national discussion and influence opinion. A spokesperson of President Rodrigo Duterte shared a story of a 9-year old girl who was raped by a drug addict to build up their case against critics of the government's "war on drugs.”
The victim was a young Brazilian, however, and the photo and story happened miles away from the Philippines.
Trend in Asia & Pacific
This kind of online eco-system that infringes on the freedom of expression and online safety of women is not unique to the Philippines.
During the three-day conference entitled “Youth at the heart of the 2030 Agenda: The Case4Space” held in Bangkok, Thailand, panelists shared how youth from across the Asia and the Pacific are increasingly subjected to online persecution, hate speech, and cyber-bullying.
In Myanmar for example, female leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi have been a target of hate speech by extremist groups according to Phyu Phyu Thi of Myanmar ICT for Development organization.
The anecdote shared by Thi showed that there is an increasing trend in online hate speech in the Asia and Pacific region.
In Myanmar, Thi’s group has specialized in monitoring and countering online hate speech. Countering online hate speech requires addressing two things: first, low perception on women which is likely deeply ingrained in a country’s culture, and; second, media literacy, which could be addressed through empowerment trainings and workshops.
Countering hate speech
“There’s a lot of education that needs to be done,” De Castro said, referring to the sudden rise in hate speech, misinformation, and paid trolls in the online landscape of the Philippines.
This was echoed by Thi, saying that media literacy can play a significant role in balancing freedom of expression and safety online.
Her group used both a personal and public approach against online hate speech. According to Thi, they first start with their personal networks and friends and then focus on the community.
Their public training delved into building their participants’ skills, raising awareness and, helping change their perception and attitude towards the frequent victims of online hate speech.
In order to ensure that their efforts reach the usual perpetrators of online hate speech, Thi said that they also engaged with some of the extremist groups.
“We need to understand that in some extremist groups... join the workshops because they have a political leaning and that they want to play a game. But for other followers, they just simply believe,” Thi said.
Thi said that there is hope. Given this perceived opportunity in raising awareness against online hate speech, Thi highlighted the importance of continuously engaging with all sectors in the fight against hate speech and gender based violence.
Building a safe online ecosystem
The activities that Thi and her team do is challenging to say the least. Fortunately, their efforts have constantly borne positive results.
According to Thi in an interview with the Youth Newsroom for Case4Space, after continuous engagement with their participants, they usually notice positive changes in their perception and approach to fake reports and violent speech online.
“It is a long way. From our experience, our organization only started with four of our friends. Now we have reached hundreds. That is because of our patience,” Thi said, smiling.
Other countries that struggle with online hate speech like the Philippines can learn a lot from this Myanmar-based ICT development group. For one, their success story shows that, despite the negativity and misinformation online, the situation is not at all helpless.
“I think with social media, it is an avenue for us to express freely our thoughts and opinions but it does not give the right to anyone to oppress or harass or send hate to anyone,” De Castro acknowledged during the interview.
De Castro plans to take the legal action in response to her personal experience with online hate speech.
She acknowledged, however, that to effectively change this increasing trend of online hate speech in the Philippines, various sectors such as the government, the public, and the private sector should work together to harness the positive side of social media. #
(Copyright: UNESCO/RAISA SERAFICA— this content was first published as part of the Youth Newsroom of the Regional Roundtable “Youth at the Heart of the Agenda 2030: The Case for Space” here:http://www.case4space.org/newsroom)