Online harm on social media is a global phenomenon.
The perpetrators on
social media include governments and non-state actors who may be acting on
their own or in concert with a government.
The targeted individuals include
“e-dissidents” who use social media to advocate for changes in their home
Others are “digital witnesses” who use social media to document
events in their home countries.
Some are individuals in the public sphere,
such as journalists and members of non-governmental organizations,
others are ordinary citizens broadcasting their beliefs, words of protest, and
fear of persecution.
1. See HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH, WORLD REPORT: EVENTS OF 2020 (2021), https://www.hrw.org/
world-report/2021 [hereinafter HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH, EVENTS OF 2020] (documenting global online
harm on social media in 2020); AMNESTY INT’L, Toxic Twitter (2018), https://www.amnesty.org/en/
latest/research/ [hereinafter AMNESTY INT’L, Toxic Twitter 2018] (documenting global online harm on
social media targeting women). Social media refers to online platforms that allow users to create and
exchange content and engage in social interactions. See Amir Gandomi & Murtaza Haider, Beyond the
Hype: Big Data Concepts, Methods, and Analytics, 35 INT’L J. INFO. MGMT 137, 142 (2015). Social
media includes social networks such as Facebook; microblogs such as Twitter, Tumblr, and Weibo;
social news fora such as Reddit; video or media-sharing platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat,
YouTube, and TikTok; as well as mobile messaging apps such as WhatsApp and WeChat. See id.
2. See ADRIAN SHABAZ & ALLIE FUNK, FREEDOM HOUSE, Freedom on the Net 2019, The Crisis of
Social Media (2019), https://www.freedomonthenet.org/report/freedom-on-the-net/2019/the-crisis-of-
social-media (documenting the rising use of social media by governments and non-state actors as a tool to
harm others); ADRIAN SHABAZ, FREEDOM HOUSE, Freedom on the Net 2018, The Rise of Digital
Authoritarianism (2018), https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2018/rise-digital-authoritarianism
[hereinafter SHABAZ, The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism] (documenting the rising use of other online
tools by governments to harm their citizens); see also Tamar Megiddo, Online Activism, Digital
Domination, and the Rule of Trolls: Mapping and Theorizing Technological Oppression by Governments,
58 COLUM. J. TRANSNAT’L L. 394, 395–425, 439–40 (2020) (examining governments’ harnessing of non-
state actors to fulﬁll their agendas of online harm).
3. See Rosemary Byrne, The Protection Paradox: Why Hasn’t the Arrival of New Media
Transformed Refugee Status Determination?, 27 INT’L J. REFUGEE L. 625, 631–32 (2015) (deﬁning “e–
dissidents”). See, e.g., Rod Nordland, Cellphones in Hand, Saudi Women Challenge Notions of Male
Control, N.Y. TIMES (Apr. 21, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/21/world/middleeast/saudi-
arabia-women-male-guardianship-activists-social-media.html (reporting Saudi women’s use of social
media to protest against laws used to restrict women).
4. See MARIE GILLESPIE, LAWRENCE AMPOFO, MARGARET CHEESMAN, BECKY FAITH, EVGENIA
ILIADOU, ALI ISSA, SOUAD OSSEIRAN & DIMITRIS SKLEPARIS, THE OPEN UNIVERSITY/FRANCE ME
MONDE, Mapping Refugee Media Journeys: Smartphones and Social Media Networks 25–26, 35–37, 56–
77 (2016) (documenting how asylum-seekers and refugees use social media as “digital witnesses”); Sam
Gregory, Ubiquitous Witnesses: Who Creates the Evidence and the Live(d) Experience of Human Rights
Violations?, 18 INFO., COMMC’N & SOC’Y 1378, 1378–92 (2015) (describing such individuals as “citizen
witnesses”). See, e.g., HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH, WORLD REPORT: EVENTS OF 2019 278, 331, 373, 453
(2020), https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020 (reporting that videos documenting police brutality were
uploaded to social media in multiple countries).
5. See UNESCO, Intensiﬁed Attacks, New Defences: Developments in the Fight to Protect
Journalists and End Impunity, U.N. Doc. CI-2019-WTR-3, at 1–73 (2019), https://unesdoc.unesco.org/
ark:/48223/pf0000371343 [hereinafter UNESCO Report 2019] (documenting the online targeting of
journalists); AMNESTY INT’L, Toxic Twitter 2018, supra note 1 (documenting the online targeting of
female journalists); see also Rosine Faucher, Social Media and Change in International Humanitarian
Law Dynamics, 2 INTER GENTES 48, 51–74 (2019) (discussing the positive role that social media may
play in assisting non-governmental organizations in documenting international human rights violations).
6. See supra notes 3–4. See generally Maren Borkert, Karen E. Fisher & Eiad Yaﬁ, The Best, the
Worst, and the Hardest to Find: How People, Mobiles, and Social Media Connect Migrants In(to)
Europe, SOCIAL MEDIA þSOCIETY 1, 8–9 (2018) (documenting how and why asylum-seekers use social
media before, during, and after ﬂight from their home countries); Rianne Dekker, Godfried Engbersen &
2021] SOCIAL MEDIA AND ONLINE PERSECUTION 751