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Women aren’t safe online. Merve Isler wants to change that

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In February, Şeyma Yıldız was killed by her own father in Ankara, Turkey because she had posted what he thought were “inappropriate images” online. Sadly, the 16-year-old’s story is not an outlier: According to the country’s police data, 81 women were killed in domestic violence incidents this past May. 

Googler Merve Isler lives in Turkey and leads Google’s Women Techmakers efforts in the region. And it’s stories like Şeyma’s that remind her why she does this work. “Yes, the Women Techmakers program aims to increase the visibility of women in the tech industry, but it’s also about ensuring their security online.” It’s incredibly important for women in her country—and around the world—to know how to protect themselves from violence, online and off.  

In the midst of a time when women are reckoning with their safety, Merve led WTM ambassadors in Turkey to organize the Women’s Online Safety Hackathon, held virtually this past August. I recently sat down with her to hear about her experience organizing the event, and to learn more about this cause. 

What was your favorite moment from the event?

I was so impressed by the CyberGuard project presentation. CyberGuard uses artificial intelligence and natural language processing to detect cyber harassment by analyzing  messages sent to the user. The team trained an artificial intelligence model using Twitter data. Then, the system could run on someone’s phone and detect if they received harassing text messages. The algorithm could detect an attack on a person at a rate of 85 percent. It also directs people using it to appropriate legal solutions and psychological support if they are being harassed. 

Were there any big learning experiences for you?

Perhaps the biggest takeaway for me was learning to never stay silent in these situations. It’s important to reflect on and report what’s happening so that we can defend ourselves. 

There are a lot of legal and psychological aspects that we need to learn and be aware of in order to prevent violence against women. While we react against violence against women, we need to be careful not to harm the people we try to support psychologically. Again, it's so important to never be silent about cyber attacks or situations where we’re being bullied. Being aware of how violence manifests in these moments, gathering facts and defending our rights through reporting is important. 

What are some tips you learned about keeping yourself safe online during the event? What do you hope others learn from this work?

I definitely learned a few things, and these are things that can help keep anyone safe. For starters, take control of what people can see about you online. Use your social media accounts' privacy tools to limit who can see your posts, and even how people can search for you. If you need to, make all of your photos and posts private.

Also, try not to use location tags on your posts, and don’t allow your social media apps to have access to your location data.

And always report and block harassers, or place people on restricted lists or use customized groups to only share with people you know. This is especially useful if you want to avoid confrontation.

How can people get involved with this cause?

The Purple Roof Women's Shelter Organization is another great resource that offers legal advice, medical support and counseling to women dealing with domestic violence, and to survivors of sex trafficking. In Turkey, We Will Stop Femicide was founded by the families of murdered women and it provides legal assistance to women in danger, fights cases on behalf of women who have been killed, educates Turkish women about their rights and campaigns for the implementation of the Istanbul Convention. And of course, anyone can sign up for the Women Safety Training events in their region.

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