Editors Picks Law & politics

Why Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not the end of the UN Charter system

Destroyed buildings in Kharkiv (Deposit Photos)

MDX legal expert Dr Giulia Pecorella explains why international courts and the UN Charter will still be crucial in peacefully resolving the conflict

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a serious violation of international law and the UN Charter. It is an act of aggression which also involves violations of international humanitarian law as civilian and protected objects have been targeted and attacked, as well as human rights law.

Some fear this is the end of the security system created by the UN Charter more than 75 years ago. This is because Russia, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has blatantly violated the cornerstone principle of the Charter. It prohibits the use of force and only allows such military action with the express approval of the UN Security Council on the grounds of self-defence.

In so doing Russia has inevitably damaged the legitimacy of the UN Security Council as the body that according to the UN Charter has got primary responsibility in the maintenance of international peace and security.

But still, from an international law perspective, I would be more inclined to see the bright side even in such dark times as now.

Resolving the war in courts

First, while Ukraine has been under attack and used military force on the grounds of self-defence, they are still determined to rely on peaceful means such as negotiations to solve their dispute with Russia.

The Ukrainian government has moreover initiated diverse proceedings before international courts, showing a remarkable positive attitude towards what the UN Charter considers another method of solving a dispute peacefully, that is, judicial settlement.

They are relying on different courts, including the European Court of Human Rights and the International Court of Justice in The Hague, as well as, they are showing great support to the investigation undergoing within the context of the International Criminal Court.

Scholars usually look at the limits of the system and the flaws of the international courts and tribunals, but I believe it is significant at this stage the Ukrainian government is still seeking to resolve their disputes through judicial settlement acting within the limits of the UN Charter.

Rescuers dismantle a destroyed residential building in Kharkiv (Deposit Photos)

At the same time, international courts have reacted very quickly, confirming they are effective and proactive means to resolve international disputes.

Moreover, States have decided to respond to the Russian aggression through acts adopted by different International organisations, including but not limited to, the Council of Europe, the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council.

This is a very interesting trend that contrasts to what we have witnessed in the last decade, when international organisations and courts have been criticised as useless, biased and ineffective, and several states threatened to leave or actually left them (think about, for instance, Brexit or the Trump Administration’s attitude towards the World Health Organisation during the pandemic, or the International Criminal Court).

Second, the strong condemnation of this aggression by the international community provides further evidence to confirm that under both customary international law and the UN Charter unilateral humanitarian interventions (that is, the use of force for humanitarian reasons by a state, a group of states or an international organisation, such as NATO or the African Union) are not allowed.

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Refugees near the railway station of Lviv waiting for train to Poland (Deposit Photos)

Humanitarian intervention and self defence

In the last 20 years, because of the impact of human rights on international law, some states, including the UK, have argued in favour of using force whenever there have been claims of genocide, the use of chemical weapons against civilians, or other war crimes.

Even if a member of the UN Security Council vetoes such actions, the UK believe we should use force on the grounds of humanitarian intervention.

While the rights of the Russian minorities in Ukraine have been often cited by Putin, the reaction of the International community confirms that this won’t be a legal ground to justify the invasion.

Similar considerations could be made in relation to the grounds of so-called preventive self-defence, as it has been interpreted, for instance, within the context of the War on Terror.

In the last twenty years, the US has argued that when states are unwilling or unable to prevent attacks from terrorist groups based within their territory, the use force on the ground of self-defence is allowed, even when the threat to the security of other states is not imminent.

While the legal grounds for Russian intervention have not been clearly submitted, which is possibly another reason to condemn it, among their arguments there is also the need to prevent further threats from a militarised Ukraine. They are calling on Ukraine to demilitarise and this intervention is a way of preventing future threats.

States gets back to UN Charter

However, the way the overwhelming majority of the international community has condemned the actions by Russia shows that international law does not currently provide for a such broad exception to the prohibition to use force.

Of course, these considerations might not be sufficient to put an end to this war or the crimes committed within its context. Yet, the return of international organisations and courts for states to settle international disputes and react to violations of international law is undeniably a very positive element coming out from this hideous situation.

I am also confident that this aggression might encourage all states to reaffirm the principles of the UN Charter and reject any attempts to interpret and apply the law differently (as Russia is doing) and set dangerous precedents which could defeat a system that has survived for more than 75 years.

In this respect, international courts might also play a very significant role.

Dr Giulia Pecorella is Senior Lecturer in Law in the Department of Law and Politics, and PhD Programme Leader for Law. Her most recent work – The United States of America and the Crime of Aggression, which has been published by Routledge – is available to purchase online.

Editors Picks Social commentary

A risky business: Moderating the content on the war in Ukraine

Destroyed buildings on streets of Kharkiv, Ukraine, March 3 (Deposit Photos)

Online abuse experts from Middlesex University explain why social media content moderators have a crucial role to play after Russia invaded Ukraine

*If you are a content moderator and want to get in touch please email:

The invasion of Ukrainian by Russian forces again underlines the power and reach of big technology companies such as Meta (formerly known as Facebook), YouTube and Tik Tok. It is through their platforms that the world will learn and react to the growing crisis. They have more power than believed, wielding the ability to keep or take down content, ultimately shaping public opinion as the war progresses. Gone is their ability to remain placid or neutral in on-going global crises. These organisations are critical agents in the dissemination and transfer of (mis)information, whether that be active or passive. Their decisions can greatly influence how events are perceived, regardless of how they have truly unfolded.

The recognition of social media’s power to influence and persuade society has led to companies such as Meta and Google facing pressure from governments on all sides of the conflict to either ban or remove content they view as misleading. Russia has banned Instagram and accused Meta of being an ‘extremist’ organisation, whilst European leaders have put pressure on social media platforms to block Russian state-controlled media. Ukraine has gone so far as to appeal directly to social media companies to block their services in Russia. It is a double-edged sword: if companies do too much, it may lead to calls of censorship and blocking free speech, but doing too little may leave them open to accusations of undermining democracy and human rights.  A lot of the content published on these platforms is being generated by their users (also termed UGC or user-generated content) and is often unregulated, requiring continuous monitoring. Social media companies can partly rely on artificial intelligence (AI) to assist, but ultimately it is their content moderators (CMs) who are at the coal face in shaping how the conflict is perceived to play out. They are the ones who monitor content posted and apply their company’s rules which define what is and is not accepted. CMs or First Digital Responders as they can be known are the individuals who protect us from exposure to harmful and traumatic content.

Rescue service worker near a house destroyed by Russian rocket in Kyiv (Deposit Photos)

At the best of times, content moderators are under pressure to view and then respond to high volumes of content with accuracy. Workers whose performance dips below certain levels are at risk of losing their jobs. In the current climate, where company performance is heavily scrutinised by governments and regulatory bodies, they find themselves at the centre of highly-charged political debates. This puts pressure on companies to demonstrate their capability to police themselves, and that they can use the technology at their disposal as a force for good. However, delivering these goals is left to the frontline moderators, where the pressure to deliver is likely to be increased. Every error in moderation may result in genuine posts being removed, accounts being suspended for reasons unclear, or leave fake posts untouched, leading to the spread of misinformation and false narrative, viewed by millions.

We can assume that content moderators are currently being exposed to and overwhelmed by war footage emerging from the Ukrainian conflict. This is likely to include violent and bloody content which they will have to watch, analyse and decide whether it is genuine or part of the swathes of disinformation they will be asked to identify. This is difficult to do, especially as techniques for producing fake footage have become increasingly sophisticated. Often individuals or organisations with specialist knowledge are needed to identify fakes. Content moderators are a global workforce, often hired as contractors and paid minimum wage, and it is unfair to expect them to understand every subtle cultural differences in a complex conflict.

There will no doubt be a lag between the tsunami of content they are moderating, and the development of official policy regarding where freedom of speech and expression end, and censorship begins. This will be followed by a waiting time, whilst decisions are translated into actionable policies for content moderators. For instance, Twitch has recently announced updated policies regarding channels that spread misinformation and Facebook have instituted a temporary change in policy that allows users in some countries to post content that is usually forbidden. This is just one part of the complex process, with reports that policies are often developed in stages or adapted on the fly. In part, this is because situations evolve, and posts can be unclear, allowing for multiple interpretations of the same information. This inevitably increases the opportunity for disagreements about moderation decisions and adds to moderator uncertainty.

People hide in a metro station in Kyiv on February 24, the day Russia launched its invasion (Deposit Photos)

These imprecise processes do not help content moderators faced with reviewing content and rapid decision making. They may find they are left to carry out their tasks with little official guidance and support, while always thinking about the threat of losing their low paid jobs if they get things wrong. For example, should a violent video that normally would be removed remain publicly available due to the political importance attached in highlighting realities on the ground in Ukraine? Should videos or posts that can be used to identify and track troop movements be removed? Are videos falsely claiming to be from the current conflict actually misinformation that needs removing? These are challenging questions during a very difficult time.  

Despite the illusion these platforms give of being places for free speech, they wield their power to carefully curate according to internal policies that are driven by corporate concerns. As such, the processes social media platforms use to decide whether posts should be allowed to stay up, or which accounts can remain active, remain frequently not transparent to their users and  those who work outside the organisation. In the days ahead whilst the conflict continues, hopefully this will not also be the case for their content moderators.

About the authors

Dr Ruth Spence

Dr Ruth Spence is a Research Fellow at the centre for Child Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) at Middlesex University. Ruth uses quantitative and online methodologies to research trauma and attachment, working with partners in the third sector, police, and industry.  She is currently project manager on a research study funded by the Technology Coalition to investigate the impacts of the role on content moderators.

Dr Elena Martellozzo

Dr Elena Martellozzo

Dr Elena Martellozzo is an Associate Professor in Criminology at the centre for Child Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) at Middlesex University. Elena has extensive experience of applied research within the Criminal Justice arena. Elena’s research includes online stalking, exploring children and young people’s online behaviour, the analysis of sexual grooming and police practice in the area of child sexual abuse. Elena has emerged as a leading researcher and global voice in the field of child protection, victimology, policing and cybercrime. She is a prolific writer and has participated in highly sensitive research with the Police, the IWF, the NSPCC, the OCC, the Home Office and other government departments. Elena has also acted as an advisor on child online protection to governments and practitioners in Italy (since 2004) and Bahrain (2016) to develop a national child internet safety policy framework

Jeffrey DeMarco

Jeffrey DeMarco is Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Senior Fellow with the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) at Middlesex University. His expertise has generally focused on the behavioural understandings of those who are at high risk of exploitation and abuse, applying care and support to those who may be vulnerable being drawn into crime and deviance. The majority of his work explores the intersection between psychology and the online space, including work for the European Commission in enhancing the policing of online sexual abuse; investigating youth justice systems responses to digital risks for UNICEF across the MENA region and eastern Africa; improving partnership between local communities and military in conflict zones using social media, including Iraq and Afghanistan; and assessing the psychopathology of adolescent victims/offenders of many forms of cybercrime. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and the Assistant Director, Knowledge & Insight at Victim Support. 

Editors Picks Law & politics Social commentary

Russian misuse of international law is final nail in coffin of post WW2 order

Dr Elvira Domínguez-Redondo, an Associate Professor of International Law, argues the global system to prevent nuclear war is no longer fit for purpose

The intensity of the global response to the Russian attack on Ukraine has been met by some with scepticism. They view it as a manifestation of Western exceptionalism when the consequences of illegal uses of force have a direct impact on their territory. However, the express Russian threat of escalating the conflict through nuclear weapons is indeed exceptional.

Since these weapons were created, their potential for mutual assured destruction has underpinned international relations  though their destructive capability has not been explicitly articulated as a threat against other States in decades (on this threat see Lewis). Beyond the weapons, the danger posed by potential attacks to nuclear plants has also taken centre stage after the Russian military attacked an administrative building linked to a nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia on 4 March 2022 (see Dielnet).

The distortion of arguments based on international law and the position of those making them have, in my opinion, completed the destruction of a system no longer suitable to prevent global armed conflict. This is not – or not only – an intrinsic flaw in the system’s design, but the inevitable by-product of intentional actions carried out by those who ought to have been most interested in preserving it.

Role of Rhetoric in the Russian aggression

International law has been referenced by Russia in justifying its invasion of Ukraine. Russia has advanced every possible exception to the prohibition of the use of force in different disguises including invitation, self-defence, and humanitarian intervention (Sayapin’s summary here).

The weakness of the legal claims are reflected in the general rejection they have deservedly received.[1] Still, the Russian attempt to provide legal grounds to its actions is remarkable, going as far as recognising two new ‘states’ for the purpose of presenting the invasion as a consent-based ‘peace operation’.[2] Russia also declared that sanctions used against its economy as countermeasures are akin go an act of war, reviving legal arguments that equate use of armed force to coercive means of enforcing international law. [3]

The swift engagement and prompt response of the European Court of Human Rights, the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court is remarkable and a revealing testimony of the centrality of international law in the means used to address the conflict [4].

Beyond repair – (another) wake up call to replace the system

The United Nations was established in 1945 with the primary objective of protecting future generations from the scourge of war. This mission relied on two pillars: stopping the use of armed force, and creating a Security Council with unique responsibility for maintaining global peace and security. Russia (then the Soviet Union), China, the United Kingdom, France and the United States have since occupied a privileged position with permanent seats and veto powers. In practice this means that outside the confines of self-defence, the use of armed force is only legal if the States most likely to provoke a third world war are in agreement. In other words, the system is based on granting extraordinary powers to a few countries that would, in exchange, act as guardians of international peace and security.

What is often referred to as ‘paralysis’ has been the cornerstone of a system designed to prevent a third world war. As I have explained elsewhere (here and here), the legitimacy of the Security Council has been irreversibly undermined by previous illegal uses of force in Kosovo, Syria and Iraq by other permanent members of the Security Council (mainly the USA and the UK, but also France). States’ attempts to address the Russia/Ukraine conflict through dispute settlement mechanisms, with an emphasis on legal arguments manifested in an exceptionally prolific use of international courts, consolidates the strength of legal rules involved in this scenario.

However, unanimous condemnations of Russia contained in emerging decisions derived from applying standard frameworks are unlikely to stop the war. This conflict will likely end at a negotiation table, potentially with a peace agreement, hopefully in the short-term, to prevent further suffering, loss of life and weapons induced accelerated planetary destruction. The strength of the rule prohibiting the use of force is likely to rise and States that have progressively broadened the scope of exceptions to legitimise their lethal enterprises may reconsider their positions. This is not the case for the system established to monitor and guarantee compliance with the rules through the United Nations Security Council.

The destruction of the pillars on which the collective security system was built in 1945 has been completed by those who benefited most from it and who were in charge of preserving its worth as an effective mechanism to prevent a global armed conflict and total annihilation.

End of the Security Council

Whatever the outcome, it is hardly conceivable that the weakened legitimacy of the Security Council can survive this final blow in neither its current nor reformed form. Those in power will seek to in articulate and enforce rules maintaining the status quo of their privileged position. Because it requires legitimacy to be acceptable to the majority away from power, law also embeds some form of public morality and fairness.

We are at a crossroad: while the prominence of the international legal order in times of crisis has been evident, it is not possible to save the system designed to prevent and/or stop a global war only by rewriting it (as suggested by Johns and Kotova). Paraphrasing Castellino, the logic leading to the obliteration of this system has highlighted how outdated its premises are. This underscores the imperative urgent need for a radically new approach to international relations, perhaps beyond the political organisation of the state and the conception of a ‘nation’ underpinning it.

“Have confidence, have certainty that the spiritual energy of the people will prevail, the non-violent spiritual energy of people against tanks, against guns, against dictatorships, against armies, against the police, will prevail.” Colin Gonsalves.

[1] Gurmendi has compiled other States’ reactions to weakness of Russia’s legal claims here

[2] For a commentary linking the current attack and annexation of Crimea, see Roscini

[3] On reviving legal arguments that equate use of armed force to coercive means of enforcing international law see Mulder in his book Economic Weapon, Yale University Press, March 2022)

[4] Pecorella summarises the role of international law here; for the ICC prosecutions see Coleman, and Wheeler; as well as Schabas  comments on genocide and war crimes)

For a list of recent short commentaries on international law implications related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, see Odermatt here.

Photo by Ahmed Zalabany on Unsplash

Business & economics Editors Picks

How seriously are companies taking their reporting under the Modern Slavery Act?

New research by MDX academics suggests companies focus on the risk to their reputation instead of labour rights when following laws on Modern Slavery

As a lesser known element of the agenda to deal with ‘modern slavery’ (commonly seen as a problem of people trafficked into the UK to work under ‘unfree’ conditions) has been a reciprocal concern over the abuse of workers in overseas operations of companies in the supply chains of UK companies. To this end, the Modern Slavery Act 2015: section 54 (MSA) was introduced to entice companies to ‘get to know’ their supply chains more. Specifically it requires companies to report on what actions they are taking to uphold supply chain labour rights in an ‘Annual Slavery and Human Trafficking Statement’ (ASHTS).

However, new evidence from a study by a Middlesex University research team led Dr Sepideh Parsa and Dr Chandima Hettiarachchi together with Dr Ian Roper from Essex University, suggests that this ‘soft law’ approach may be granting companies with too much flexibility, leading to inconsistencies in reporting where many challenges and complexities related to labour rights never get reported.  

While concerns have been voiced before over the credibility of information reported on ASHTS, little has been known on how companies select and focus on their reporting options. So researchers carried out a detailed examination of the largest 100 companies’ statements to shed light on some of the nuances in their reporting.

The research team developed a comprehensive index. Under the MSA, companies have the option to report on a number of categories. Based on these together with the recommendations by the CORE (2017), the team concentrated on five main categories: Organisation and Structure of supply chains (OS), Due Diligence (DD), Risk Assessment (RA), Codes of Conduct, Policies and Strategies (CPS) and Training and Collaboration (TC).

Each category included sub-categories that were informed by the recommendations of the CORE (2017) and in consultation with The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre.

The findings revealed that just over half of the companies prioritised reporting on their Risk Assessment and Due Diligence processes, followed by Codes of Conduct, Policies and Strategies and then Organisation and Structure of their supply chains being reported by similar number of companies. Upon closer examination of the two latter categories, reporting on CPS were closely linked with reporting on RA and DD processes (Figure 1). The hierarchy of priorities reported suggests, maybe unsurprisingly, an emphasis on those issues which are of more concern to investors, with an emphasis on risk to reputation, rather than to other institutional stakeholders – for example those concerned directly with labour rights. These three aspects (RA/DD/CPS) were at the epicentre of reporting, forming a strong, mutually supporting triangular relationship (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Correlations between different reporting categories

Notes: Figures in brackets show the percentage of companies reporting on each category.

Falling outside the reporting focus, Organisation and Structure of Supply Chains was linked, but to a much lesser extent, to RA and CPS. For example, only 60% of companies that raised their reporting on their RA or on their CPS also provided more information on the Organisation and Structure of their Supply Chains (OS). Details on how companies organised and structured their supply chains, especially in geographical locations that were identified as being at ‘high risk’ to violations of human rights combined with the challenges companies can face in certain areas were unreported. These were often in areas that fell outside their national jurisdiction. Similarly, just more than half of companies (57%) that increased reporting on the organisation and structure of their supply chains enhanced their information provisions on their due diligence processes. This conveys further hesitation by companies to disclose details about those part of their supply chains that were more at risk and hence had due diligence processes specifically devised for them.   

Maintaining a low profile on their supply chains is an illustration of companies’ reluctance to draw attention to challenges and problematic areas that may be hard to resolve within a business context or simply too complex and politically too sensitive to report on. In the UK regulatory environment for corporate governance where shareholders’ interests are prioritised, releasing information that may lead to uncertainties could adversely affect share prices, so there is an incentive for companies to avoid drawing attention to problematic areas. While this can be acceptable in the absence of any mandates for reporting on complex and sensitive issues, the same justification somehow falls short of explaining why companies made limited efforts to report on their Training and Collaboration programmes, where solutions could potentially be proposed to address problems identified.  

Training and Collaborations was the least reported category. Companies remained largely silent about their collaborations with external organisations, such as trade unions or labour NGOs. All this raises questions over how in-depth corporate efforts have been in finding out and understanding and dealing with challenges they face on this labour-rights issue, or how willing they have been in reporting on such efforts. It is unclear how much effort has been put into raising and changing corporate awareness and culture on labour rights issues and whether or not all the relevant issues have been identified and responded to. This can ultimately have implications for how risks are managed and due diligence processes are devised.

While it is convenient to prescribe the need for companies to engage with external ‘social partners’ who can inform their processes, we need to learn a lot more about sensitive labour issues along companies’ supply chains, especially those aspects that were often in geographical areas outside companies’ national jurisdictions with circumstances that are outside their expertise and their business remits. While Sepideh and her team remain critical of ‘soft law’ approaches, unless we know more about supply-chain challenges and complexities, any attempt to take a harder regulatory approach would be meaningless. 

The whole report is available online.  For any queries, please contact:

About the authors

Dr Sepideh Parsa is Associate Professor of accounting in the Accounting and Finance Department at Middlesex University Business School.
Dr Chandima Hettiarachchi is Researcher and Associate Lecturer in Accounting & Finance Department at Middlesex University Business School.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Editors Picks Home Categories Science & technology Social commentary

Speaking Up: Contributing to the fight against gender-based violence online

Following the UN’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based ViolenceElena MartellozzoPaula Bradbury and Emma Short explain why more needs to be done to tackle gender-based cyber violence.

From 25 November to 10 December 2021, the United Nations marked the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence, under the global theme set by the UN Secretary-General’s UNiTE campaign: “Orange the World: End Violence against Women Now!”. Our staff at the Centre of Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) at Middlesex University, along with close friends and colleagues, have worked consistently at an international level to support women and girls who are victimised online. They have participated in major events to share empirical evidence, raise awareness, and to support governmental organisations who are working to stop gender-based cyber violence against women and girls.

As defined by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), a regulatory agency of the European Union, cyber gender-based violence includes “all forms of violence perpetrated through electronic communication and the internet”. The Centenary Action Group, which campaigns for equal representation of women in the UK parliament, argues that online violence against women and girls “should be recognised as a wide and growing set of harms including intimate image abuse, online harassment, the sending of unsolicited explicit images, coercive ‘sexting’, the creation and sharing of ‘deepfake’ pornography.”

Evidence at both global and regional level shows that women and girls are particularly affected by this phenomenon, being exposed to high levels of online violence, and its impact can be devastating. However, as argued by Dame Vera Baird, the victims’ commissioner for England and Wales, more needs to be done because “women are simply not being protected by the criminal justice system”. Ninety-nine percent of those exploited for financial gain are women, and one in five are girls (Plan International, 2021), with children in care and children with special educational needs being amongst the most vulnerable (NSPCC, 2021). An estimated 50% of female sex workers in the UK began being paid for sex acts before they were 18 years old, according to Women’s Liberation Now.

What is being forgotten is that women continue to be sexually exploited after they turn 18 years old. This issue was raised in the Chief Social Worker’s Annual Report 2019 -2020 which stated:

“It’s important to remember this does not stop at eighteen and is not an issue which children’s services can tackle alone – our safeguarding services need a different response. Unfortunately, they are often configured in ways which do not support young people after the age of eighteen unless they have a disability.”

Some women are specifically targeted at the age of 18+ as abusers know that safeguarding provisions diminish at that point, and the definition of the exploitation changes from the sexual abuse of a child to a sexual choice made by the woman. However, according to the UK government’s strategy, in order to tackle sexual violence against women and girls, the focus should not be about the age of the victims, it should be about vulnerability and the imbalance of power between the victim and their abuser that is utilised for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Some of the most vulnerable women are those from ethnic minority communities, women engaging in sex work, women with disabilities and victims of domestic abuse.

During these 16 days of activism, we have seen governments and organisations, including NGOs, creating opportunities to voice, share and debate how the key factors that aggravate cyber violence against women can be challenged.

On 24 November 2021, Professor Clare McGlynn QC (Hon) presented at the Lincolns’ Inn Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Forum,  on “the Boundaries of Intimate Image Abuse: where next for law reform?” Claire presented on a number of uncomfortable types of cyber violence, including cyberflashing, a form of sexual intimidation that can make women feel fearful for their physical safety, as well as feeling violated and humiliated which can lead to considerable distress and anxiety.

The following day, the Finnish Ministry of Justice invited us – Dr Emma ShortDr Elena Martellozzo and Paula Bradbury – to present a discussion paper on “digital violence: understanding the growing threat to women and girls in cyberspace”.  We explained how online violence and abuse against women and girls has grown over the past two years, as lockdowns moved the world online. However, risks associated with cyber violence against women and girls may be overlooked, as they are often not considered ‘real violence’.

Dr Elena Martellozzo argued that separating cyber violence from ‘real world’ violence can be dangerous because of the negative and harmful effects that online violence has on women and girls. There is a risk that because these crimes take place virtually, they could be dismissed as less damaging for women and girls than physical violence. However, being online creates opportunities for crimes like cyberstalking, cyberharassment and online grooming to be enacted easily, rapidly and anonymously. The ‘always on’, omni-connected nature of modern life means that perpetrators have the potential to target individuals, particularly women and girls, perfidiously.

Dr Emma Short presented some evidence suggesting that there has been an increase in stalking behaviours experienced by victims, and changes in stalking behaviour in the year ending April 2021.  She argues that changes in the patterns of stalking behaviour present new challenges for advocates and frontline police officers, emphasising the necessity not only to understand the changing landscape from their perspective, but also how the problem is policed and the victims are supported.

Paula Bradbury talked about the victimisation of children and young people online and presented some of the evidence collected on women selling nudes during the lockdown on sites such as OnlyFans. She explained that some young, vulnerable women, in financial difficulties, were compelled to sell their bodies online, and perform sexual acts requested by subscribers to maintain their interest, increase their popularity, and earn more money. Acknowledging that such sites reduce many of the risks to women who work in the offline sex industry, Bradbury argued that they also create the opportunity to exploit women and girls for financial gain in plain sight.

Call for further changes

“The construction, perception and communication of hate is primarily social,” claimed Dr Eleonora Esposito during the Stakeholder Consultation Meeting on mapping cyberviolence in Europe, organised by EIGE on 2 December 2021. It is therefore important that we do not focus exclusively on the role played by social media and, as a result, overlook our civil responsibilities. We, as social media users, should be held accountable for utilising those platforms maliciously, to harm others, and these messages should be clear to all users through perhaps, an online code of conduct, that highlights the importance of online safety.

Furthermore, it is important “to advance the status quo on gender-based violence”, claims Dr Esposito, by developing common definitions that will allow researchers to measure the phenomenon. Only what is measured becomes visible, and what is visible can in turn be monitored, and only what is monitored can be improved. In other words, the lack of understanding of the gravity that cyber violence has on women and girls may lead to inadequate responses from police authorities, for example making women who experienced online harassment feel responsible for “putting the information online in the first place”.

We have observed that there is also a tendency to place the responsibility for cyber violence on victims rather than abusers. This attitude only serves to enable the prevalence of exploitation and risks to women, girls, and other vulnerable victims and reduces their willingness to report their abuse. More than a third of women worldwide have experienced abuse online, rising to almost half for younger women (classified as Generation Z and Millennials), according to a 2021 study from the Economist Intelligence Unit. While individual efforts are important for immediate damage control, we call for significant changes to be made by a variety of stakeholders, including governments and the tech industry. We ask for changes that do not only provide the necessary legal framework to support the voices of women, girls, and other vulnerable people who are exploited online, but practical measures that prevent and challenge those who seek to exploit.

Some of the significant changes should include:

  • The advancement of the status quo on cyber gender-based violence by developing common definitions of cyber gender-based violence, so we can measure specific issues with precision
  • The development of an online code of conduct, particularly in the workplace
  • Implementation by government of a comprehensive public health approach to tackling online abuse
  • Updated training and appropriate resourcing for front line workers to tackle cases of online violence
  • More pressure placed on tech companies by governments to do more to tackle online abuse
  • Tech companies to provide greater transparency about their content moderation efforts and to invest more resources in human content moderation.

This blog was originally published by Media@LSE.

About the authors

Dr Elena Martellozzo

Dr Elena Martellozzo

Dr Elena Martellozzo is an Associate Professor in Criminology at the centre for Child Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) at Middlesex University. Elena has extensive experience of applied research within the Criminal Justice arena. Elena’s research includes online stalking, exploring children and young people’s online behaviour, the analysis of sexual grooming and police practice in the area of child sexual abuse. Elena has emerged as a leading researcher and global voice in the field of child protection, victimology, policing and cybercrime. She is a prolific writer and has participated in highly sensitive research with the Police, the IWF, the NSPCC, the OCC, the Home Office and other government departments. Elena has also acted as an advisor on child online protection to governments and practitioners in Italy (since 2004) and Bahrain (2016) to develop a national child internet safety policy framework

Twitter: @E_Martellozzo

Paula Bradbury

Paula Bradbury

Paula Bradbury is a Criminology Lecturer and Doctoral Researcher within the School of Law at Middlesex University, exploring the appropriateness of current policy and practice relating to adolescent sexual offending and sexual behaviour between peers. She is passionate about researching online sexual offending behaviour and child abuse.

Paula is an active member of the CATS team engaging in multiple research pathways to combat child sexual abuse both online and offline as a mixed methods researcher proficient in both quantitative and qualitative analysis, and project management. She is also the National Child Sexual Abuse Lead for Victim Support, serving as a project manager developing online support content for adult survivors or child sexual abuse. 

Twitter: @PB_Cybercrime

Dr Emma Short

Based at DeMontfort Universitiy, Emma is a Chartered Health Psychologist and HCPC registered as a practitioner in Health Psychology. She has been engaged in research in the area of cyber harassment, stalking and technology facilitated abuse since 2005, working with partners in the third sector, Higher Education, police and Government bodies.

She collaborates widely with stakeholders and continues to deliver training to service providers about online harms and the nature and impact of cyber harassment and stalking.

Twitter: @Emmpath

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New perspectives on evolutionary theory revealed

Tom Dickins, a Professor of Behavioural Science, has written a new book which explains how popular theories on evolutionary biology have changed in modern times

The Modern Synthesis was a long period of theoretical development in evolutionary biology that began with the invention of population genetics in the 1900s. A key innovation was Fisher’s analogical use of the ideal gas laws to envisage a population of particles, or genes, randomly bumping into one another. Just as with atoms these genes would remain in equilibrium until some external force changed that – natural selection was such a force. This analogy enabled a statistical synthesis between Mendel’s views of particulate inheritance and Darwin’s theory of gradual evolution whilst reinterpreting evolution as changes in gene frequencies within a population.

Evolutionary ideas

The Modern Synthesis also saw the removal of some older evolutionary ideas including those from Lamarck. Lamarck argued that developmental processes could be induced within an individual as a response to the environment. Development could lead to new and useful forms that would be inherited and would thus persist. Darwin had replaced this definition of evolution with one where successful trait variants were retained at the population level because more individuals with those variants survived and reproduced. Unsuccessful variants were removed. But Darwin did allow a role for transformation in the generation of new variation. Population genetics removed Lamarckian transformation entirely relying instead upon genetic variation and the outcome of selection. During the Synthesis additional processes were included, such as genetic drift, but all reorganized the constitution of the population without reliance upon a theory of development.

The role of developmental biology

The removal of Lamarck and the redefinition of evolution as a population level process meant that evolutionary biology was no longer a theory of form. This change has not gone unnoticed, and contemporary scholars have begun to look again at the role of developmental biology in evolution.  Some have explicitly called for an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis that will incorporate mechanistic theories of form. In doing this these scholars are arguing both for new models of the emergence of useful variation and for new types of inheritance, most especially through developmentally induced transgenerational epigenetic effects.

A central argument of the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis is directed toward what is referred to as gene-centrism.  During the latter stages of the Synthesis, in the 1960s, biologists began to model genes as agents whose goal is to replicate across the generations. To achieve this goal, genes contribute to traits that enable the survival and reproduction of the organisms they find themselves in. Genes, as replicators, can span many, many generations. Bodies, as vehicles for those genes, are mortal. This heuristic captured sophisticated mathematical modelling that allowed biologists to address central questions about the emergence of social behaviour, leading to the development of inclusive fitness theory. The replicator-vehicle view saw genes as packets of information, transmitted across generations, and conveying instructions for a developmental program. For many critics this view was taken as preformationist, as an assertion that the gene contained everything and should be privileged in causal models of form.

In my book The Modern Synthesis: Evolution and the Organization of Information (pictured above) I give a detailed history of the Synthesis. I argue that the use of information concepts during this period, and since, has been informal and that this informality has enable a reified view of information to emerge. By this I mean that in colloquial terms scientists have talked as if information is something to be harvested and to be transmitted, and this in turn has allowed a view that information can have causal powers. This has much to do with misinterpretations of Shannon’s 1948 mathematical theory of communication, a theory that emerged just prior to information concepts in biology. Shannon’s work is often treated as a theory of information when in fact it was really a theory of data that enabled the quantification of information. I give the detail of this position and offer what I consider to be a more appropriate interpretation where information is seen as a functional outcome of the relationship between data (as input) and a context (or system) into which it is inputted.

Genes are data

Taking this contextual view of information, I then show how genes, or more precisely DNA codons, are to be seen as data that plays a role in protein synthesis contexts. I show how this view is inherent in the writings of the Modern Synthesis, but also how it enables us to make sense of development within evolutionary biology. Genes are causally prior in developmental sequences, but not conceptually central. Claims that the late-stage Modern Synthesis was gene-centric with respect to development are thus shown to be overwrought.  More technically, I then spend several chapters investigating key aspects of the developmental challenge to the Modern Synthesis, showing how each mechanistic theory is entirely compatible with the Synthesis under a correct view of information.

The central claim of my book is that evolutionary processes enable the organization of information by selecting for data-context relationships. Life is fundamentally informational. But the book is also a defence of the Modern Synthesis, and I close by discussing how such large scale, framework theories act to corral and constrain multiple bespoke theories. Developmental biology is in the business of explaining the development of multiple different systems. It is unlikely that all these theories will cohere under one developmental framework, but as complex data processing systems they can all be made sense of in terms of evolution. In this way evolutionary theory provides an account not of specific forms but instead of the kinds of form that development must deliver.

The book is available online and all Middlesex University staff and students can access the book here.

Top photo by Eugene Zhyvchik on Unsplash

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Too much to lose? Why OnlyFans fails to censor its explicit content

Dr Elena Martellozzo and Paula Bradbury of the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) warn about the impact of OnlyFans’ decision to keep allowing users to post nude content

OnlyFans, a subscription-based social media platform where users can sell and/or purchase original softcore or X-rated content, has come under scrutiny in recent weeks for restricting its sexually explicit content and, a few days later, for changing its mind.

Created by a London based company, this controversial content-sharing platform allows creators to share paywalled or subscriber-only content. This model has earned the company billions from its more than 120 million users, by applying a 20% fee for the created content. This has been financially advantageous to both the company and the creators, with the top 1% of creators earning six figure sums per year.

Whilst OnlyFans initially took an ‘anything can be uploaded’ approach to user content, on 19 August, in response to concerns of banking partners and payment processors about potentially illegal content, the platform decided to restrict the availability of its sexually explicit content. People would still be able to post nude content on the site, but this would have to be in line with OnlyFans’ policies. However, just a few days later, the decision to restrict the availability of sexually explicit content was overruled following widespread backlash from its users. In a response, OnlyFans defended the decision noting that it “is short-term good news for sex workers reliant on the platform.”

However, what does this mean for the platform’s responsibility to protect users?

Exploitation of children

Over the last few years, concerns have been raised about the sexual exploitation of individuals using OnlyFans after revelations that some under 18s, particularly girls, have been circumnavigating the age verification measures and setting up their own accounts to upload explicit images of themselves in exchange for money or gifts. Experts working in child protection are concerned that sites such as OnlyFans may be used by adults who are interested in targeting those who appear significantly younger than the rest of content creators. As we have previously argued, whilst the site might have changed sex work forever by creating a safe environment for sex workers to engage with their clients, it has also opened up a new arena for inexperienced and naive young people who are tempted by the financial rewards, yet not subject to the usual legal protections for under 18s.

It is indeed a dangerous temptation. The law in the UK is very clear: it states that to be able to sell or distribute explicit content the creator must be 18 or over. Yet there is currently no legal requirement for online platforms to monitor explicit content that might have been generated by underage users. This suggests that both the underage person creating the content and the person that buys it could face criminal liability.

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Adults are not risk-free

There are also a number of harms and risks posed to adults who join the site as content creators. In a recent interview on BBC Radio 5 Live, one female content creator, Camilla L, reported making over a million dollars a year but has, as a consequence, been greatly affected by stalkers who send her messages reporting their observations of her movements, causing her to move home and live constantly in fear. The platform creates the risk of cyberstalking, yet is not doing anything to address this.

OnlyFans has being used by ex-intimate perpetrators of stalking to sell images of their victims – a practice known as image-based abuse (IBA). IBA occurs when an intimate image or video is shared without the consent of the person pictured and stalking advocacy agencies have reported a significant increase in the rise of this form of crime. This further highlights how important it is that OnlyFans becomes a true partner to its creators and protects all users from abuse and non-consensual posts.      

The debate over ‘explicit’ content

These risks contributed to the pressure on OnlyFans that led to the short-lived ban on explicit content. But it is also critical to reflect on the potential risks of pushing content creators away from this site, into possibly darker and less regulated corners of cyberspace, and therefore important to consider the potential benefits of a platform which provides a safer, more visible and regulated environment for sex workers.

The key is doing more to protect users

OnlyFans’ decision not to ‘explicitly’ change, however, appears to be purely financial. This focus also overlooks the importance of doing more to protect its users, such as more effectively regulating or preventing minors from accessing the site; tracking down and stopping sex perpetrators, and protecting all users from abuse and non-consensual posts. This view was supported by Honza Cervenka, an English lawyer representing victims of discrimination, harassment and non-consensual pornography, who told us that OnlyFans has yet to “properly and diligently check that all content on the page is legitimate and consensual. The reason for this is because it is simply too laborious, expensive and eats up into their profit margins”.    

While the company claims to be evaluating more than 300,000 media files a day and has more than 500 agents involved in compliance and moderation to flag content, artificial intelligence is not always reliable for detecting all types of harmful material. As argued by Professor Aiken, ‘cybersecurity does not protect what is to be human‘. If OnlyFans would train experts to ensure that moderation is carried out successfully, it could allow for creators to continue to produce content in a safer environment.

The steps that OnlyFans has taken so far to protect its users have been unsatisfactory, to say the least. In May 2019, the platform introduced a new account verification process whereby the creator must provide a ‘selfie’ along with their ID on the image to prove their identity. However, this proved to be a futile system, as underage users have been able to use adult ID’s to create fake accounts.

More robust action is needed, and the UK government indicated that one of the aims of the 2017 Digital Economy Act was precisely “to have robust age verification controls in place to prevent children and young people under 18 from accessing pornographic material”. However, the long-awaited Online Safety Bill has left us somewhat disillusioned, as an effective and trusted method of age assurance has yet to be mandated to prevent under 18s from accessing sites like OnlyFans, which permit them to sell and access explicit images and puts them at risk of exploitation. So why wait any longer to build the digital environment they deserve?

This blog was originally published by Media@LSE.

About the authors

Dr Elena Martellozzo

Dr Elena Martellozzo

Dr Elena Martellozzo is an Associate Professor in Criminology at the centre for Child Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) at Middlesex University. Elena has extensive experience of applied research within the Criminal Justice arena. Elena’s research includes online stalking, exploring children and young people’s online behaviour, the analysis of sexual grooming and police practice in the area of child sexual abuse. Elena has emerged as a leading researcher and global voice in the field of child protection, victimology, policing and cybercrime. She is a prolific writer and has participated in highly sensitive research with the Police, the IWF, the NSPCC, the OCC, the Home Office and other government departments. Elena has also acted as an advisor on child online protection to governments and practitioners in Italy (since 2004) and Bahrain (2016) to develop a national child internet safety policy framework

Twitter: @E_Martellozzo

Paula Bradbury

Paula Bradbury

Paula Bradbury is a Criminology Lecturer and Doctoral Researcher within the School of Law at Middlesex University, exploring the appropriateness of current policy and practice relating to adolescent sexual offending and sexual behaviour between peers. She is passionate about researching online sexual offending behaviour and child abuse.

Paula is an active member of the CATS team engaging in multiple research pathways to combat child sexual abuse both online and offline as a mixed methods researcher proficient in both quantitative and qualitative analysis, and project management. She is also the National Child Sexual Abuse Lead for Victim Support, serving as a project manager developing online support content for adult survivors or child sexual abuse. 

Twitter: @PB_Cybercrime