Living with violence in social media

6 minutes
Living with violence in social media
"Series of mobile phones with flames coming out from its screens", interpreted by DreamStudio.
Circuito inaugurates with this article a collaborative section for voices from all over the region to talk about social media and democracy in Latin America.
By: Esteban Morales‍

A Microsoft survey estimates that during the last year 76% of Colombians have experienced some type of violent content on social media, including hate speech, harassment, insults, sexual violence or threats. In this context, understanding what violence is in these spaces allows us to begin to imagine a way to reduce its impact on our lives. 

To this end, I had conversations with young people in Medellín who frequently use social media and have a common interest in studying cultures of peace. In these conversations (shared in a recent article published in the academic journal Social Media & Society) we explored how, as we increasingly live through digital spaces, violence becomes part of our media diet. 

While the initial purpose was to talk about armed conflict-related violence, the conversations quickly demonstrated the wide range of violence we experience on digital platforms: insults on Facebook, videos of accidents on Instagram, comments ridiculing someone's outfit on TikTok, harassment of transgender people on Twitter, stickers on WhatsApp to mock a classmate, or leaked sex videos on Telegram. Social media goes beyond armed conflict to frame other more mundane-but not trivial-forms of violence. 

All of these manifestations can be organized into five forms that violence in social media takes. First, violence is represented through social media-as, for example, when we receive a photo of a massacre. Second, it is exercised directly on social media-as when we receive insults or threats in response to a post. Third, it is spread through social media-as when common criminals use direct messages to continue extortion or scam chains. Fourth, violence is exercised by digital platforms-as when they steal our personal information or censor us. And, finally, it is naturalized by social media-as when we become accustomed to seeing discourses that minimize women, restricting our ability to transform these structures of oppression. 

These forms of exposure to violence interact in complex ways with the contexts in which we live, whether in our neighborhood, city, country, or elsewhere. The multiple manifestations of violence are easily accessible and transformed through social media. In this way, the violence we experience on these platforms connects with violent environments that we would not normally feel so close to.

Each platform organizes our experience with these forms of violence differently. For example, on Twitter (now X) it is usually exercised when users share harmful content or comment on others' posts. On Facebook, it often manifests itself in comments on posts. In Instagram, on the other hand, it is usually symbolic, such as when the exposure of a perfect but inaccessible life causes serious psychological damage. WhatsApp, on the other hand, is a source of private and intimate violence, i.e. violence that is not visible to others and often comes from people known to them, such as family members or friends.

Understanding this phenomenon allows us to begin to evaluate the impact it has on our lives and on societies with long histories of violence, such as Colombia. A comprehensive look shows the need to promote cultures of peace inside and outside digital environments. 

From this perspective, the current policy of most platforms to moderate content that includes certain types of language or images is a superficial -although necessary- effort to address violence on their platforms. Only a multi-sectoral work, in which legislative, technological and cultural initiatives are coordinated to identify and combat toxicity in social media can respond to the complexity of digital violence. 

As French political scientist Françoise Vergès says,"Can we imagine addressing only one part of this violence without taking into account the rest? Can we continue to pretend that we don't see that all these forms of violence are mutually reinforcing?"

In Colombia, where companies such as Meta and Google are free to decide what is violence and what is not (and therefore, what violence we should live with in networks), it is urgent to set a political, educational and cultural agenda to face this challenge with answers and measures that are adjusted to local experiences.

This article originally appeared in Botando Corriente, our newsletter. You can subscribe here:
Esteban Morales

Esteban Morales is a doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada). His area of research is the intersection between technology and society, with special interest in the processes through which citizens and communities learn, resist and appropriate digital media. Esteban has expertise in the study of digital data, online violence, media literacy and peace education, among others. You can learn more about his work at or via Twitter (or X) at. @EstebanMoralesV.

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