A little while ago, we brought together our community together with a panel of experts to talk about online safe spaces. Now, if you’re wondering what online safe spaces are, just think of secret Facebook groups, closed WhatsApp and Instagram groups, invite-only forums and other online collectives that primarily aim to offer a safe and supportive environment for a set of users (we particularly like this one).
For a rape survivor, journalist, or persecuted minority, online safe spaces, just as their physical counterparts, provide a secure environment to share stories, foster support, gather ideas, and celebrate underrepresented identities without being ridiculed for it.
Digital safe spaces are often more accessible and easy to manage (with some offering the extra security of anonymity) but they are also increasingly risky with threats posed by fake news, hate speech, cyber bullying, and intrusive surveillance.
Here's what we found with our panellists Dr. Angela Daly, a socio-legal scholar and digital rights activist, Michael Gold, senior editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit, and Tiffany Huang, founder of Instagram profile Spill Stories.
1. It's all about trust
Online, nothing is as it seems. While it may feel safer to share personal stories online, chances are you can’t bet on who you’re dealing with. Interacting over the Internet, specifically within a ‘Safe Space’ requires an incredible amount of trust (and countless assumptions).
2. Who's in charge?
The basic idea behind safe spaces is that people at the fringes are able to express themselves with #NoJudgement, but of course online speech has its limits. Racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia and transphobia are often equally common online, so who's to decide which content stays and which goes? Should groups self-regulate or risk being clamped down on by public authorities?
3. 'Filter bubbles'
The idea here is that when like-minded people come together to share similar perspectives, it doesn’t really open up conversations beyond what they already agree on. We do appreciate, however, that for some spaces aimed at supporting the protection or recovery of a certain group (such as rape survivors) or more specialist groups (like journalists) this may be required. What this risks, however, is the tendency to be ostracised from the mainstream conversation.
4. But how safe is it, really?
As the Internet is currently set up, true online safety is hard to come by. With the rise of safe spaces, prying governments and data-hungry corporations have risen in their ability to infiltrate, patrol and monitor safe spaces. In turn we’re also seeing more and more activists being persecuted —and in many cases detained or killed — based on their online activity.
5. A digital tug-of-war
As we look ahead, one thing’s for sure: online safe spaces will continue to pop up everywhere. Across the Internet, on social media, deep within the dark web, or on the blockchain, users will continue to need and will continue to form communities with mutual interests, aimed at fostering support. But this in turn threatens the heightened risk of surveillance, censorship, and persecution of netizens, especially as authorities and lawmakers aim to regulate online behaviour more and more.
But we’re staying optimistic. It's not just that we agree with our panellists who rightfully predicted the likeliness of more unfiltered real content along with an increased representation of minority voices online (although our panel also stressed, nay screamed, the risks!) but also because we truly believe that these challenges can be solved to some extent, if not fully. And of course, as our panel put it, what is needed is a dedicated platform that truly embodies the values and goals of a safe space while meditating the risks — did we mention the We The People Platform?