Pacific women and online abuse

Shania Singh

Fijian women are bearing the brunt of online abuse, says the country’s Online Safety Commission (OSC).

The OSC says 61.44% of Fijian women experience this form of violence while men account for 38.56%. Facebook accounts for 57.58% of reported incidents, TikTok for 15.95%, while incidents were also reported on WhatsApp, Viber, Email, Messenger, and Instagram.

Online bullying accounts for 29.1% of reported cases, while image-based abuse stands at 10.96%. The OSC says defamatory comments and posts make up another significant portion at 21.56%.

“It serves as a reminder that we must remain vigilant in protecting ourselves and our loved ones from the dangers lurking in cyberspace,” the OSC’s Acting Commissioner, Tajeshwari Devi told attendees at a recent Safer Internet Day event in Suva.

Fiji’s Shania Singh, a former television producer and personality who now runs a business as a content creator, marketing specialist, and online influencer, knows these dangers first-hand. Over 134,000 people follow Singh on TikTok, and nearly 70,000 on Facebook.

“The cyberbullying started when I was still on television, with many people having different opinions about me, mainly because I showed up almost out of nowhere, and they didn’t know much about me. As time went on, the audience grew warmer and I grew thicker skin,” she told Islands Business.

She says criticism intensified during the 2022 Fiji elections where she and her partner were part of the now Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka’s elections campaign.

Rabuka’s 1987 coup and its impact on Fijians of Indian descent meant Singh was considered a “betrayer of her own kind”, leading to online abuse by supporters and party members of an opposition party.

“The cyberbullying continued for a year after that, becoming increasingly absurd each time an AI-generated video, a fake account’s comment, or a lie was spread about me, to the point where I actually visited my lawyers,” she added.

“I was advised to press charges. I chose not to. For now. My reason for this was, the person I had gathered the most information on was a youth of a marginalised community, influenced by unprofessional politicians and political hopefuls. Had I pressed charges, this young person would’ve had a record, and be unable to advance in life, whilst their influencers carried on with theirs,” she said.

Singh said since advising the person that she would press charges if the harassment continued, most of the attacks have stopped. However, she plans to create a series on her social media platforms to address the issue of cyberbullying.

Not enough data

Mereseini Rakuita, Principal Strategic Lead of the Pacific Community’s (SPC) Pacific Women Lead Programme, notes the data deficit when it comes to these cybercrimes. “We don’t have the relevant data that we need to make informed decisions, policy decisions and interventions that could address the negative impacts of technology,” she told Islands Business.

“We know stories about kids who have killed themselves because of pictures of themselves or conversations about boyfriends being distributed online. And that’s something that can be addressed, if policymakers put their mind to it,” she said.

Mereseini Rakuita

Some of the stories highlighted during SPC’s Safe and Equal Spaces symposium last year included an unidentified victim of image-based abuse in Vanuatu where an ex-boyfriend publicly shared nude pictures of the victim on social media because the victim wanted to end the relationship.

The victim shared: “I ended up not wanting to attend school anymore as my school friends would mock me and so loneliness and depression filled up my thoughts, thinking suicide would be the solution.

“My parents recognised that I was not attending school anymore and asked if I was all right, so I shared with them my story. I was crying over the comments, which were mostly all negative and abusive. My mom got angry and started victim blaming but my dad played his responsibility by taking me to the Police Cybercrime unit to report the incident. This is very harmful because it affects how the society, even my own mother, perceives and judges me being a victim instead of supporting me.”

While the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific and the revitalised Pacific Leaders’ Gender Equality Declaration
recognises Technology-Facilitated Gender-Based Violence (TFGBV), Rakuita says there is not enough analysis, “which is why SPC, through the Pacific Women Lead Programme, held the first conversation as a region about the issue, what’s working in-country, what’s not working, what’s available, by way of policies, by way of law, so that we could learn from each other.”

SPC’s first TFGBV priorities document notes the need for more research and data into TFGBV, laws and regulations to address the problem, and education and training for frontline TFGBV responders.

“If somebody goes to complain about TFGBV, you need a person on the other side who is receiving the complaint to know what it is, and to be able to recognise it as a form of violence,” said Rakuita.

International efforts

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) recently hosted a regional cybercrime roundtable discussion, hearing from law enforcement and prosecutors in Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea on the challenges and opportunities when it comes to online crime.

Scams, bullying, and the exploitation of children are some forms of cybercrime, which “mainly come from rampant social media use,” says Matthew Watson, the Pacific Advisor for Cybercrime and Digital Forensics at UNODC.

“Ten years ago, social media was not quite widespread, and people in the more remote villages probably would not have access to the global network. Now that they do, criminals are understandably seeing this opportunity to target people that may not have had the awareness that not everybody can be
trusted online,” he said.

Matthew Watson
Matthew Watson

“It’s not just young people that are targeted, I think that’s a misconception. It’s actually those who are aged 25 years and above. They’re the ones that are running into cyberbullying and online fraud, that are enabled through social media,” he added.

Watson notes “good use of legislation” against cybercrime in Melanesian countries. For example in Fiji, a 56-year-old male citizen was charged under its Cybercrime Act for the first time for allegedly using a fake social media account to post defamatory comments.

“Criminals online thrive in a community similar to traditional gangs. If criminals can find pockets of places
online, dark web or wherever, they can share notes and say, ‘Have you looked into this country? Their legislation has got a few gaps and we can do an attack here,’ it is only going to be the detriment of places like the Pacific where legislation and police capacity is growing,” he said.

“There are ways in which law enforcement agencies can track a certain amount of activity for different crime types, but I don’t think our data is mature enough at the moment to be able to say, ‘This number of criminals are in this island or this country,’” he added.

He notes that greater investment in police and their investigative capacities will improve data collection and results. Papua New Guinea will soon set up a separate national cybercrime task force to ensure that “the law is upheld at all times,” Steven Lapun, Enforcement Compliance Office for the PNG Office of Censorship, revealed at a recent UNODC-facilitated ransomware training in Fiji.

“The practicalities of setting up a department require administration, they require having the resources to be able to do that, and that’s where UNODC and others are supporting, and providing the opportunity to train,” said Watson.

He says digital forensic tools are very expensive and there is a need to invest in them to be able to get the very latest data.

“Phones and personal computers are getting more and more complex, and you need dedicated tools,” he said.

Cellebrite—one of the tools that Pacific law enforcement agencies now use—costs around AU$15,000 for a one-year standard licence.

“To be able to get the premium version which unlocks phones and does all of the bells and whistles, you’re looking at a lot more, and it’s finding the justification in budgets to be able to sustain that sort of level of investment for digital forensic tools, which is going to be an issue, and something that we’re hoping to sort out,” he said.

“Unfortunately, technologies are always going to advance, and criminals are going to get more and more sophisticated, so it’s important that, now that we’re on this journey, we’ve just got to see it through, and stay focused on it because it’s really important to not increase that gap between what the criminals can do and not what the law enforcements can reasonably detect and investigate,” he said.

“If Pacific Island Countries take their foot off the pedal with this, it’s going to be really difficult to catch up,” he added.