Is the Internet hostile to women?

A recent study by the Pew Research Institute revealed that 40% of Internet users have experienced online harassment. Among young adults between the ages of 18 and 24, 70% cited that they had experienced some form of abuse online. A disturbing trend showed that women were far more likely to have experienced severe forms of  abuse – among women aged 18 to 24, 26% responded that they had been stalked online, and 25% had experienced sexual harassment.

 

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A quick scan of recent headlines seems to confirm these findings. In August 2014, hundreds of private nude photos of female celebrities were leaked online and posted on the Internet forum 4chan, in an event that became known as “Celebgate”. While many took to social media to express their support for the stars, others blamed the women for having their photos leaked, asking why they had posed nude in the first place. Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence, one of the highest-profile victims of the leak, later said in an interview with Vanity Fair that she considered the breach of her privacy a “sex crime.”

 

In the weeks that followed, British actress Emma Watson delivered a game-changing speech on feminism at the United Nations, in which she encouraged men to join the movement by mobilizing around the hashtag #HeForShe. Shortly afterwards, a website EmmaYouAreNext.com appeared featuring a “countdown,” clock, promising to leak nude photos of Watson in retaliation for her statements. While this later proved to be a hoax, the cruel prank spoke volumes about the current state of the Internet.

 

Soon after, yet another scandal involving online harassment rocked the gaming community. Feminist media critic and gamer Anita Sarkeesian has in the past received death threats for her critique of misogyny in gaming. The situation escalated, however, when she planned to attend a conference at Utah State University. A man emailed the university claiming that he would carry out a “Montreal-style” massacre if she attended, threatening to kill Sarkeesian and other women present. Sarkeesian was forced to cancel her appearance when the University informed her that they could not guarantee her safety in accordance with Utah state weapon laws. The incident, which became known as #Gamergate, launched a discussion of the toxic gaming culture that many consider to be harmful to women.

 

This succession of jarring events begs the question: has the Internet increased abuse against women, or merely given another, more far-reaching voice to those who hold misogynistic views? Recently, former White House intern Monica Lewinsky addressed this question when she delivered a speech at the Forbes Under 30 Summit, in which she referred to herself as “patient zero” of media abuse, and noted how much more hostile the media landscape has become given the instantaneity of online forums.

 

Though the Internet can in some instances worsen the problem of harassment, it has also served as a rallying point to counter the issue. In the summer of 2014, the viral hashtag #YesAllWomen spurred an important conversation around feminism and women’s rights in the 21st century. When news broke of the Jian Ghomeshi scandal, in which over a dozen women have now come forward detailing violence they experienced at the hands of the popular CBC radio host, initial reactions from fans online accused the women of defamation. However as days passed and allegations against Ghomeshi continued to grow, social media users began to rally around the hashtag #IBelieveWomen and #BeenRapedNeverReported, countering a long legacy of victim blaming and denial that often comes with the territory of sexual abuse.

 

Though these cases are extreme, most women experience milder forms of harassment. Many who engage in online dating find themselves bombarded with abusive comments and messages. Recently, a number of women have taken to Instagram and Tumblr to document abusive messages they have received on Tinder, a popular dating app. The publication of these crude comments serves both to shame those who send them, and to draw awareness to the rampant disrespect often present in online interactions, where people feel that anonymity will protect them from the consequences of their comments. While the accounts can sometimes be funny, the frequency and crudeness of some of the responses are also disturbing. In one case, a Junior Hockey player was suspended when his coach became aware of abusive comments he had made to a woman, who went on to post them online.

 

What factors are at the root of gender-based abuse online? Some have argued that diversity problems in the tech industry – commonly referred to as “brogramming” – are a main cause. Feminist news site Jezebel drew attention to this issue when it found that its comment section was being inundated by disturbing GIFs depicting violent acts against women, including rape. The comments originated from untraceable “burner” IP addresses, making it impossible to block and report the anonymous users. Jezebel editorial staff found themselves forced to comb through every comment, individually flagging them as abuse. In an editorial on the site, one writer likened the experience to “playing whack-a-mole with a sociopathic Hydra.” When Jezebel approached Gawker Media, its publishing platform, to do something about the harassment, they were told that blocking the untraceable burner IPs of anonymous trolls was simply not a priority.

 

Why is such disregard shown for an issue that affects so many people? Diversity reports from Silicon Valley show that less than 1% of the US population works in the tech industry, while 87% of Americans use the Internet. Twitter employees are predominantly white and male, suggesting that they may not be entirely in tune with issues affecting women and minorities. Indeed, it took multiple incidents of rape and death threats against female politicians and journalists, and an online petition with over 120 000 signatures, for Twitter to finally install a button to report abusive accounts. Facebook has also been criticized for its ethical practices, including its censoring of breastfeeding photos, but not of violent sexual imagery posted to its site.

 

Given the high profile incidents that have recently dominated online discussions, are social media sites catching on that better systems may be needed to prevent online abuse? Twitter has recently updated its reporting system, and 4chan was forced to issue an apology in the wake of the Celebgate scandal. Perhaps the most significant movement, however, will come from online users who can mobilize on these very networks to counter negativity and harassment. If, as writer and consultant Clay Shirky believes, the Internet “runs on love,” perhaps the positive noise can indeed drown out the trolls.

 

 

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