Impacts of Digital Communications Technologies in relation to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Crisis

Wednesday, January 27, 2016


On January 30 and 31 the Native Women’s Association of Canada, the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action, and the Canadian Journal of Women and the Law will host a symposium at uOttawa on murders and disappearances of Indigenous girls and women.  The event will bring together Indigenous women, allies and international human rights experts to strategize on how to move forward the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, now that the federal government has committed itself to establishing that inquiry.  In this entry I discuss the impacts of digital communications technologies on this national crisis.

While violence against women (VAW) affects a broad spectrum of women and girls in Canada, indigenous women and girls are particularly vulnerable (Canadian Women’s Foundation, 2014), resulting in more than 1100 missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada (RCMP, 2014). Systemic factors such as colonialism, misogyny, and racism have been identified as root causes of the missing and murdered indigenous women crisis.  Emerging research is focusing on the role technology plays in VAW (Fairbairn et al, 2013), including research showing how digital communications technologies are used to facilitate the trafficking of indigenous women and girls (Sethi, 2007). Without simplistically blaming technology, there is a need to explore the ways that digital communications technologies interact with other factors in the complex historical, sociocultural environment that incubates the national crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

In its 2015 report on missing and murdered indigenous women, CEDAW stressed the need for Canada to take all forms of violence against indigenous women seriously.  In addition to international standards and definitions of VAW that are broad enough to include acts perpetrated through technology (Fairbairn, 2015), there is increasing evidence of policy shifts toward specifically recognizing and addressing the role that technologies can and are playing (APC, 2015). These shifts have led to initiatives focused on cyber-violence and its differential impacts on women and girls from diverse communities (OCTEVAW, 2015; YWCA, 2015). More research is needed to understand the particular impacts of cyber-violence on indigenous women and girls, particularly in the following three areas.

A. Human trafficking – CEDAW (2015) recommended that Canada “pay special attention to the needs and situation of aboriginal women in prostitution” and to conduct studies to better understand and develop mechanisms to combat trafficking of aboriginal girls and women. Since the data about domestically trafficked persons is at best partial (due in no small part to the frequent characterization of the trafficking of indigenous women as an issue of sex work or prostitution (Sethi, 2007)), an understanding of the scope of the issue is sometimes gained through analysis of other statistics.  These include statistics showing that Aboriginal girls and women are over-represented in prostitution (Sethi, 2007; NWAC, 2015) and that 60% of sexually exploited youth are Aboriginal (Sethi, 2007). Developing a better understanding and a concrete action plan for addressing the ways in which indigenous girls and women are recruited into and kept in human trafficking will also require understanding the role of digital communications technology in those processes. 

Research shows that digital technologies, such as the internet, are used to facilitate human trafficking of young people in a variety of ways.  Traffickers use the internet to recruit indigenous girls, especially those in rural communities, often with promises of a job and the excitement of life in the city, but with the goal of isolating them from family and community, thus rendering them more vulnerable to being trafficked (Sethi, 2007; NWAC, 2015). Traffickers also use the internet, including social media platforms such as Craigslist and Facebook to “advertise” sexually trafficked youth (Thorn, 2015). Traffickers communicate with trafficked youth using mobile technologies and track their activities by checking these young people’s text histories and phone logs (Thorn, 2015).

Obviously, technology is but one factor interacting with a variety of root causes that render indigenous girls and women disproportionately vulnerable to human trafficking.  Sethi (2007) identifies the inter-generational impacts of colonization (including increased sexual abuse, violence, substance abuse and suicide rates), a lack of awareness and acknowledgment of sexual exploitation, poverty, isolation, racism, gangs, gaps in services and insufficient housing as root causes that must be addressed. In an increasingly technologically facilitated society, understanding the role that technology plays in relation to identified root causes of trafficking indigenous women and girls and of the crisis itself could play an important role in responding meaningfully. 

B. Impact of online pornography & child abuse imagery – Some research suggests that the widespread dissemination of “hard-core, body-punishing sex in which women are demeaned and debased” facilitated by the internet needs to be understood as a legitimator of VAW (Dines cited in NWAC, 2015).  As a prime source of information for young people, messaging on the internet can shape young people’s expectations of themselves and others, including in relation to the conflation of sex and violence. It may also facilitate desensitization and increased interest in depictions of escalating levels of violence, including child sexual abuse (Bailey, 2007). Moreover, online inculcation of youth with mainstream representations of thin, white, heterosexualized femininity can negatively affect girls’ and young women’s self esteem and sense of belonging (Steeves, 2015). Research also suggests that these same representations can also form a basis for peer-to-peer harassment online (Bailey, 2015), the consequences of which are discussed in part C below.

C. Online hate and harassment – CEDAW (2015) identified stereotyping as one of the root causes of the missing and murdered indigenous women crisis in part because stereotypes of indigenous women that depict them as “prostitutes, transients or runaways … [living] high risk lifestyles” undermine public and law enforcement willingness to treat these cases seriously. For this reason, they recommend that Canada take measures to address racism and sexism “with a view to eliminating negative stereotypes against aboriginal women” (CEDAW, 2015). Racist and misogynist stereotypes familiar in offline spaces are also reflected in online spaces, sometimes with greater vitriol that some attribute to the apparent anonymity of online spaces, as well as the “mob mentality” they can facilitate (Bailey, 2010). Moreover, sexually violent online attacks, such as rape threats, are disproportionately targeted at women (Fairbairn, 2015), and indigenous persons in Canada and internationally are targeted with extreme and hateful stereotyping and threats can lead to withdrawal from online participation and, in extreme cases, to suicide (Carson et al, 2015; Chapin, 2015). These kinds of attacks can work to undermine the self-esteem and self worth of indigenous girls and women, contributing to an environment that enhances vulnerability to trafficking and exploitation (NWAC, 2015).

In addition to interacting with other socio-cultural and historical forces in ways that expose indigenous women and girls to vulnerabilities recognized as root causes of the missing and murdered indigenous women crisis in Canada, digital technologies can also be used as tools for addressing the crisis and root causes underlying it, as well as to enhance public access to the impending inquiry.

To that end, questions that the inquiry might consider include:

(1) how are digital communications technologies being used to facilitate sexual trafficking of indigenous girls and women, to disseminate violent pornography, and to distribute online hate and harassment aimed at indigenous women and girls?

(2) how are internet service providers responding to these uses of their platforms?

(3) what further steps can be taken to diminish use of digital communications technologies for these purposes?

(4) how can digital communications technologies be harnessed for purposes of raising public awareness, education, and privacy-respectful investigation?


(5) how can the impending inquiry make use of digital communications technologies to expand access to its goals, processes and results, while respecting the dignity and integrity of families and victims, including the maintenance of the level of privacy and confidentiality they may desire in relation to their stories?
Designed by Rachel Gold.