First published in part in The National, 6 March 2017
THIS WEEK I saw a friend savaged online. She’d written piece for The Guardian criticising the independence movement. The tenor of public obloquy that followed has driven her offline and to seek police assistance. I won’t name her in an attempt to shield her from more, because the last week has been difficult enough. I know all too well that when you attach a name to an article you provide an invitation Google. Instead of discussing the article – which wasn’t necessarily a comfortable read – I want examine the wider problem the response was emblematic of. A problem that confounds lawmakers, is brushed aside by and trivialised by users and even the media: hostility towards women online.
This is not a sob story. It’s not imaginary. It’s not playing the gender card – it’s a very real problem, subject to intensive research, and one that is increasing in severity year-on-year, . At one end it ruins the quality of online discussions – at the other it stops people being able to do their jobs without constant abuse. Abuse that disproportionately affects women and those in other marginalised groups. Abuse that intersects with and is augmented by race, sexuality, ability, politics and other identity characteristics.
A recent Demos study cast light on the scale of internet misogyny. Over a three week period, they monitored ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ and found 6,500 people targeted in the UK, and more than 200,000 internationally. These are just two words and thus a fraction of the abuse doled out.
Additionally, The Guardian’s ’The Web We Want’ project found of its 10 most harassed journalists, eight were women and two were black men. The research into their comment section provided the first quantitative data on what women journalists have always known – our articles elicit more trolling and direct abuse than those authored by men, regardless of the topic. Women have to enter already hostile territory in order to have their say, and when they do, the likelihood of harassment is significantly magnified compared to men.
How has this happened when he internet gave us opportunity to start over? We had a chance to shape a not just a new social sphere, but an alternate and parallel reality outside of the rules of real life and the rubrics of visible gender. There was a chance to establish new social norms. So why is it that despite the lack of physical self, we imported traditional gendered behaviours into a new space?
The petri dish of online deviance
The digital divide has mirrored the social divides of old. Men were early adopters of the computer technology and subsequently the Internet. This allowed them to shape, contour and control that space without the influence of women. Consider the early Internet – it was an extension of the STEM industries, created and consumed by those already working male-dominated environments. The sites and communities created reflected the nature of the industry those within it. It became masculine space as a virtual interpretation of that physical world. It was quickly populated by male users and male-orientated content becoming a digital man-cave, bloated with the salacious material you’d expect now in it’s proto form. There was lots of science, lots of tech, but there was also link lists and peer-to-peer distribution and link lists of pornography, repositories of violent or disturbing imagery used to shock. In the early 90s a community called Bianca’s Smut Shack became one of the first spaces where cyber vandals congregated to harass and abuse others. It’s since been described as the petri dish of deviant online behaviour. The petri dish that would be genesis of the likes of Something Awful and 4chan that have shaped the internet culture we have today. The trolls and the flooders came crawling out of this digital primordial soup.
Decades later, the once unpleasant behaviours of a minority enjoying their first freedoms have become the norm. Lord of the Flies has morphed into the Wild West. There is no conch – only posturing, aggression and every person for themselves.
We are shifting into a post-troll internet. That’s not to say there’s less trolling – clearly there’s more – but the nature of harassment is evolving. The trolls have teeth. Attacks have moved beyond the leisure pursuit of provocation by the bored, to the sport of hunting and seriously damaging individuals. Individuals that are most often women. Targeted attacks use a range of affective registers; doxing, revenge porn and the leaking of nude photos, rape threats, death threats, deliberate lies and reputational harm. The tone of this behaviour, in a space outside of offline social paradigms, tells us much about the interplay of power and gender. Of course, men are also the subject of trolling and abuse, but in a way that similarly echoes real world social divides. Online, gender boundaries are enforced in much the same manner as the offline world during adolescence. Men harass men and women, whereas women typically harass other women. In both instances this is about power. When men bully other men it’s about machismo, and when they bully women it’s about dominance. When women bully other women they’re enacting the ‘cool girl’ trope – adopting the masculine norms for acceptance to the group. These behaviours are all symptomatic of one this: there’s a problem with women being in male space.
Where are the women?
So why don’t boys want to play with the girls? Is it because they don’t like women? Or is it because they’ve historically been the gatekeepers of public discourse? Historically women have been conspicuously absent because of the constraints of motherhood, keeping home, and the pressure to embody Betty Friedan’s ‘feminine mystique’. After the hard earned wins of the early feminists, women went home again. The difficult war years made family priority number one. Marriages spiked. There was a baby boom. Women eschewed education or careers to be a wife and a mother. They focussed their aspirations inward and stopped partaking in the world beyond their home. This meant generations of women absent from actively participating in public discourse. Their absence became normalised and when they made their way into that space it challenged that norm. There was push back against women’s voices, because the men were here first and there had been very few women around with the ability to demonstrate their opinions mattered and were worth as much as theirs. This same social scenario is playing out on the internet. There is similar resistance. Right now it’s become violent and calculated in a way we’ve not witnessed in the real world for some time. And we’re not doing enough to counter it.
What are the consequences of this resistance for women? We’re socially conditioned to minimise and deescalate situations, and as such, often don’t feel empowered to fight back or defend ourselves online. When we do fight back, we have to be the perfect example of grace, flawless grammar and patience for fear of the vituperation that follows. Criticism because we’re counteracting our feminine passivity. We’re not expected to assert ourselves in the same way as men, so when we lose our temper or react visibly, we come across as emotionally unstable, as shrewish and aggressive, as ungrateful, as disrespectful and any other negative adjectives that would not be so readily applied to men behaving similarly. So not only are we expected to just tolerate it, mounting our own defence is often to our detriment. The hostility toward women is now so visible on social media, on sites, on dating apps, on blogs, in newspaper comments sections, entering these spaces feels like walking willingly into a war zone. Why put ourselves through it?
This enmity is contributing to a digital Darwinism, where women only participate if they’re mentally and emotionally robust enough. This is pushing women’s voices out of discourse. It’s contributing to a transient population their voices online, who can’t or won’t stay around long enough to participate in shaping online spaces. Through this culture of aggression, they’re not afforded the same freedoms to develop their ideas or evolve their thinking as men thanks to their relative online safety. It’s impacting women’s desire and ability to reap the rewards of the digital revolution – when much of our lives are shifting online, we can’t continue to ignore the long-term consequences. When women make up half of the population, this means a real imbalance in the representation of views and voices versus that demography. This has scalable consequences from the personal to the societal.
Online abuse is not new, but attempting to counter that culture is often met with impotence, from citizens and lawmakers. Police are reticent or unable to use the tools of justice. Many people have resigned themselves to the state of affairs, many feel a need to enshrine free speech at any cost, many feel the internet should exist unmolested and outside of offline rules. But why is silencing and harassment the price we’re willing to pay for liberty? Why must women pay the price of that resignation? Offline, consequences shield us from abuse in our public spheres – as our public spheres become increasingly virtual, we must offer all the same protections.