As our life becomes more digital, so does violence too

What is online abuse? As part of the Digital Service Design course, students interviewed people from key user groups who today are a target of this type of abuse and made their user needs visible for Naisten Linja.
Digitaalisen palvelumuotoilukurssin palveluvisualisointi: Pauliina Korento, Jyrki Hietala, Emese Veszely
Many who are exposed or had experienced online abuse felt like they were not allowed to get help and support. Illustration: Pauliina Korento, Jyrki Hietala and Emese Veszely

We spend a lot of our time online, and it has become an essential part of our life; we share our most sensitive thoughts and feelings with our close online communities.

The position of power and exposure of bloggers, activists, influencers, and journalists on social media has made many of them targets for technology-facilitated online abuse, such as hate speech, digital stalking, online humiliation, location tracking, and doxing (publicly distributing private or identifying information).

The Digital Service Design course was carried out in collaboration with Naisten Linja, Women’s Line, in Autumn 2020. Naisten Linja is a free service for people who identify as women and who have experienced abuse, threats, or fear of violence. 

In August 2020, Turv@verkko (Safety Net) project launched new support services for online abuse, which brings to Naisten Linja a new customer profile with a new set of service needs.

“Naisten Linja has quite a good grasp of the needs of women who have experienced intimate partner violence. But our new support services, weekly Turv@verkko phone line, chat, and online peer support groups are open for women who have experienced online harassment, hate, and abuse. This was a completely new and heterogeneous user group for us, and with the help of the design students, we wanted to understand their needs better and to find new ideas of how to support them,” explains Louna Hakkarainen, manager of the Turv@verkko project at Naisten Linja.

A course task was to help improve or ideate new services that support those experiencing online abuse.

The students on the course developed ways to better reach these new potential customers, who very often are not aware that this support service exists. Digital service ideas were developed for different stages of online abuse and throughout the customer journey: from raising awareness before any online abuse happens to reporting abuse and finding help. Storyboards and prototypes illustrated how the ‘to be’ service would support survivors.

Kuva: Pauliina Korento, Jyrki Hietala, Emese Veszely
Graph: Pauliina Korento, Jyrki Hietala, Emese Veszely

Social media users who experience online abuse are entitled to support—but they are not aware of it

One of the most surprising findings was that many research participants expressed that they felt like they were not allowed to get help and support, and this was particularly evident for the activist user group. Therefore, the majority of the student concepts focused on how to prevent abuse and how to recognise it.

Digital abuse, like intimate partner violence, is still often a taboo, and it causes uncertainty and shame, and therefore victims need to be reassured that digital abuse is a crime. Digital acts of violence can be difficult to identify as violence. Many people also lack tools on how to deal with negativity online.

From the user perspective, it is crucial to be aware that support services exist—if and when something disturbing happens, you can easily find help and get support.

The feeling of being an exception seems controversial if we consider how large a phenomenon this is. According to a survey carried out by the Pew Research Center, 41% of Americans have been personally subjected to harassing behaviour online, and 67% of 18- to 29-year-olds had been the target of different kinds of online abuse.

The services should be visible where the users are

One student team focusing on the activist group suggested that these new services and experiences need visibility, and they developed a concept of ambassadors, whose task is to take part in social media discussions and raise awareness of these support services and legitimacy to get help for digital bullying.

Another student team suggested that the best way to reach influencers would be to be present where they are. For example, Naisten Linja could make a repeated and shared story campaign on Instagram when an Instagram user reached 1,000 followers, including some tips on how to prevent negativity online.

Instagramin tarinakampanjan prototyyppi. Suunnittelu: Reti Kilvet, Silvia Puukko, Tomi Monahan ja Mika Järvi
Instagram story campaign prototype by Reti Kilvet, Silvia Puukko, Tomi Monahan, and Mika Järvi.

A student group focusing on the young adults group envisioned prevention (digital self-defence) courses which should be widely available for students.

Naisten Linja could collaborate with big institutions like universities to create awareness on these issues. The more people know how to protect themselves from harassment online, the less damage and feelings of shame it may cause.  

Digitaalisen itsepuolustuskurssin kuvitteellinen tapahtumailmoitus. Kuva: Volha Furs, Hanna Kiss and Robert Hedengren
An illustration of a suggested digital self-defence course event advertisement by Volha Furs, Hanna Kiss, and Robert Hedengren

In the final discussion, students pointed out that digital and psychological abuse is problematic as it exists on a grey scale, it is hard to define who should take responsibility when things are wrong but not illegal, “not against the guidelines”.

Another team working on the activists group developed a short, humane questionnaire that would feel like “a warm hug”. The questionnaire can be easily shared on social media, and it would convince users they are entitled to get help.

Kyselyn käyttöliittymän prototyyppi. Suunnittelu: Vera Väänänen, Zina Marpegan ja Onni Anttoora
Questionnaire prototype by Vera Väänänen, Zina Marpegan, and Onni Anttoora.

In minority communities, the abuse can be very subtle but continuous in daily encounters, and many of these encounters may not be intentionally harmful, but together microaggressions and explicit hate speech can cause a heavy emotional burden.

Therefore, for example from the LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning) group’s point of view, it is essential that the support organisation should be visibly queer as well so that potential users  would feel safe and do not have to overthink or explain their sexuality.

Ethnic minorities may feel that they are not represented in images and illustrations of a service, and then the relatability becomes a hurdle. One group studied how digital avatars could enhance digital approachability and relatability as a nudge to contact Naisten Linja. Their conclusion was to present people and diversity in avatars but in an abstract way.

The course was a success

Six student teams mapped and analysed the current Naisten Linja services and proposed future online interactions for Naisten Linja to support the survivors of this new type of violence.

'If we were to define being online not as an interaction channel but rather as another dimension where life happens in parallel to our physical world, digital abuse would be to our life what violence is to our physical and mental well-being. The digital world is also 'the real world.' To design services for digital abuse we first must understand new digital realities and the experiences of violence that happen within this new context,' explains the course co-teacher Núria Solsona.

'I did my doctoral study at the department of design, so I knew that the Aalto students are very talented and full of ideas. Nevertheless, we were amazed by the enthusiasm of the students as well as the teachers Núria and Antti Salovaara—and the quality of the end results. The students managed to identify the relevant problem areas based on the user interviews and to deliver readily implementable concepts. We at Naisten Linja were very happy and inspired by this collaboration,' says Louna Hakkarainen.

Naisten Linja provides support to people who identify as women and who have experienced abuse or who want to talk about it. Naisten Linja services are mostly run by a network of volunteers providing advice and support via different channels: by phone, online messaging and online chat. Naisten Linja also hosts professionally led face-to-face and online groups for survivors.

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