By Silvia Ecclessia
An Interview with Elena Ferrara
Part 1 – Elena Ferrara’s story and the parallels between cyberbullying and online gender-based violence
Content warning: this article contains mentions of bullying, cyberbullying, and suicide.
According to the latest statistics produced by the Italian Platform Elisa, 8.4% of high-school students in Italy have been victims of cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is a phenomenon that includes all attacks to individuals or groups through the use of online platforms, including: defamation, identity theft, fraud, sharing of private photos, threats, and similar behaviours. Italy has been a pioneer in the introduction of cyberbullying in its judicial system with law 71/2017 “Dispositions for the protection of minors for the prevention and contrast of the phenomenon of cyberbullying.” At the time, according to Elena Ferrara, “the attention that had been given to the Italian approach has been found again in the guidelines issued by the European Council on 4 July, 2018”, thus, sending a signal to the European Union.
Despite the unfortunate difficulty in finding gender disaggregated data on cyberbullying, it is plausible to affirm, like it has been done by some studies (here and here), that a gender dimension to the phenomenon exists, and girls and women are more often victims of online bullying. The online protection of minors, thus, has several intersections with the issue of gender parity and women’s security online that we will explore during this interview with Elena Ferrara.
Ms. Ferrara, is an ex italian senator (elected in 2013). She is the main promoter of law 71 issued 29 May 2017, and her continuous supporter. She represents, since the very first moments of our conversation, a clear source of knowledge about cyberbullying, the protection of minors online and the legal panorama around law 71/17. The case Google vs. Vividown taking place in 2006, provoked a first alert in Italy that led to the creation of ‘Generazioni Connesse’, the Italian Safer Internet Centre. The law 71, following the momentum created by this first resounding case, started to be conceived in 2013 following a tragedy very close to Ferrara – the story of Carolina Picchio (in english here) – that focused Ferrara’s attention on the growing problem of cyberbullying.
Your interest in cyberbullying and the protection of minors online was born from a personal story, could you tell me more?
“This is the part that touches my heart the most. Carolina has been at the centre of a lot of discussions as she has been the first declared victim of cyberbullying. This does not mean she has been the first victim, but she has been the first to write why she was taking her life. And she wrote addressing the people that put her in that situation: “Congratulations guys for your bullying, good job”, and also “I wonder how you can be so insensitive. Words hurt more than punches, they really do. Don’t words hurt you?”. It was 5 January 2013 and still cyberbullying was touched upon only in specific circles, and reflections in schools were at the very beginning. I myself, being Carolina’s middle school teacher for three years, I believe I have never talked about something that could in any way refer to the digital space. It hit me quite hard, even professionally, when I read Carolina’s words: “How can you be so insensitive?”. Carolina had already been a victim of more ‘traditional’ bullying. She broke up with a guy who turned his group of friends against her: a sad victimising process had started among her peers. She changed her group of friends and even schools, thus, she found herself quite capable to react when facing traditional bullying. But then the video happened… She had been invited to a party where her ex-boyfriend would not have been present: a trick to take revenge. She faints, because of something she drinks, and sexual acts are simulated on her unconscious body and recorded with a smartphone. The recording of the violence is diffused first through some whatsapp groups and then, coinciding with her decision, published on Facebook. At that point she is alone, she does not talk about it with her parents or closest friends. She is a girl that still maintains a certain sharpness and writes what I mentioned before as well as the names and surnames of the perpetrators. Among this group of boys, 5 had her age (14 years old), and one was younger. They had judicial pardon in 2019 after appealing, despite the seriousness of the charges which went up until 27 months of incarceration. The trial lasted almost seven years, during which the minors’ tribunal could acquire whatsapp conversations and every other traceable evidence, from which it emerged that these boys had created the cinematographic set to compromise Carolina’s reputation. This was the objective: hit her and sink her. Thus, a high level of violence and revenge against her. “
What kind of parallels could be traced between Carolina’s story and online violence against women?
“While the law and the trial were following their course, the case of Tiziana Cantone took place bringing to the creation of a law addressing revenge porn. However, law 71 had already been conceived on a substantial case of revenge porn, where, however, Carolina did not send or publish any compromising photos herself and thus, they needed to create the compromising situation – the compromising violence. Later, unfortunately, according to the traditional logics and prejudices that still permeate our community, despite being the victim to which had been addressed more than 2000 offences online before she took her life, a secondary process of victimisation took place, like often happens. Some people still thought that somehow she put herself in that situation with her actions. I never wanted to meet those boys, I completely respect them and wish them to have the most normal possible life. I said it from the very beginning, also to Carolina’s parents, I am not a legislator looking for an impressive punishment. The issue for me was about prevention. I feel myself, as a teacher, flawed. We left these young people alone facing a world, the digital world, that has not been created for them, where, however, they learned dangerous behaviours. What the digital world is demonstrating today is that moral and ethical standards and limits have been lowered too much in cyberspace, and that teenagers do not have the critical awareness to go against certain models and prejudices, for example of sexist nature.
Why is the law only on cyberbullying? Because the phenomenon, while having a similar root as bullyism, has different characteristics and surely has greater consequences on the victims’ mental health. It is a matter that deserves further scientific research and monitoring. Thinking about protective measures, I needed to imagine a new governance model, with new stakeholders. Thus, focusing on the digital world in a targeted way, I created a very limited field where we could talk only about minors, only about cyberspace, and only about education and prevention. The guidelines created in observance of law 71 rightly associate bullying and cyberbullying. But today, in the face of what we are seeing, we need to have educational activities with young people considering that they cannot be exempted from living in a digital world. I am very happy because the UN Committee for childhood and teenage rights has finally issued General Comment 25 last year, on the rights of minors online, since until now the Convention on childhood and teenage rights of 1989 could not address them, naturally.”
Prejudices and stereotypes about gender roles and the different experience of sexuality that boys and girls live make it possible for cyberbullying episodes to be a reiteration, at a different age and often on a different scale, of toxic behaviours put in place by adults online. Because of the different terminology used, the cases of Tiziana Cantone and Carolina Picchio are not often put into dialogue, however, they are a slightly different expression of image-based-violence, or revenge porn. The case of Tiziana Cantone had been particularly followed by the Italian public given its graveness, and brought to the creation of a law criminalising revenge porn. Nevertheless, Tiziana has been heavily blamed by the public and media for giving her initial consent to the recording of the private video then shared without her consent. As mentioned by Elena, a similar social stigma also hit Carolina. Her experience, moreover, is specifically exemplary of what is called the “continuum of violence” from the offline to the online world. Moreover, Ferrara highlights how the path can also be inverted:
“Honestly I do not believe that the path of violence is only from the offline to online world, but also the other way round. I am convinced that the moral devaluing that is perceived online has also an influence on offline violence. With the distancing provided by the digital tool, it is more difficult to use the empathetic skills to which also Carolina referred to. Teenagers often minimise and claim to be just making a joke. However, they know that on the delicate terrain of gender identity we need to be more careful when ‘joking’. It is difficult to ‘joke’ with those that are at the sum of the thermometer of hate, according to research on hate speech”
While several scholars, first of all Haraway, theorised the emergence of cyberspace as a liberating new environment that transcended the body and thus, the discriminations based on biological differences – like between women and men – we note today how the injustices of the offline world are transposed, and sometimes even amplified, online. While the Internet holds the potential to empower and emancipate women and minorities, it also reflects patriarchal structures existing offline that hinder women’s participation in cyberspace. But what can we do to tackle this issue? Read more in the second part of this interview.