The 2019 election of the five women ministers in Finland set a historic feat for equality in political leadership. However, a recent report found that these women were facing coordinated online “misogynistic abuse attacking their values demeaning their decision-making skills, and questioning their leadership abilities.”
This is not the first case of the deep-rooted trend of violence and hate against women spilling over into online spaces. Women who use social media as a part of their jobs, such as politicians, journalists, activists, academics, celebrities and artists, routinely face harassment for openly expressing their views online. The pandemic further pushed these professions online, and “online trolling and misogyny” consequently increased.
Closer to home, journalist and author Rana Ayyub is frequently on the receiving end of online death and rape threats for her critique of the ruling government. The abuse reached its peak when UN Human Rights experts called on her to be protected in light of an online hate campaign. To what extent is online harassment, in its volume and content, different for women than for men? What are the impacts of it on women, their work and freedom of expression?
How is Online Harassment Different for Women?
A study, using two population surveys in Norway, found that men are in fact “more likely than women to have experienced both unpleasant or patronizing and hateful comments”. However, this claim can be challenged as more men can openly express their opinions online while women may actively refrain from doing so. It is likely that targeted women become more cautious than targeted men in expressing their opinions publicly upon receiving hate, due to the nature of the threats. Looking at India, only 29% of internet users are women and only 28% own a mobile, highlighting a gendered technological divide, thereby not providing women with the same starting point.
The above study also found that men reported receiving more hate based on their arguments or political views whereas more women pointed to receiving hate directed towards their gender. It’s common for this hate to devolve into sexual and violent threats alongside unsolicited sexual messages and images. It was also found that this gendered harassment is more likely to silence its recipient than attacks on the contents of their argument. In fact, there is a compound effect wherein women may choose not to share their opinions online after seeing the kind of harassment that other women face.
When Online Threats Go Offline
This demeaning treatment transcends social media and turns into offline threats. While research shows that both men and women face doxxing—it’s been found that women, and especially those from minority groups, are more likely to have their private information circulated online. For example, journalist Neha Dixit had her number and address leaked online, witnessing repeated instances of stalking and intimidation. Online threats are not “harmless” as they have turned into physical violence, as with Patricia Smith, editor of the Shillong Times, when her house was attacked with a petrol bomb in 2018.
What Is the Message Behind the Hate?
What does this online violence, turning into offline incidences, represent? The targeted backlash against a woman expressing her opinion has been defined as the adverse consequence against challenges to the status quo to help protect existing gender inequity. In places where it’s not the norm for women to freely express their opinion, the same is reflected on social media where it’s easier to silence them behind anonymity and the ability to call on hordes of ‘trolls’ to harass someone.
Group-based harassment doesn’t only target the individual, but their background, identity, religion or community. For example, Ayubb recalls insults with “almost everything that has my religion and religious identity linked to it”. The aim of this form of online abuse is to remind groups that they do not “belong”. Online harassment that is gendered is an instance of this, while adding more layers of identity-based attacks would only fuel the silencing of minority women.
Disregarding Female Voices and Threats to Journalism
This can have profound impacts on not only the well-being of women but on their career and freedom of expression as well. As seen in most of these examples, women journalists, in particular, are subject to more online and offline threats. The significant personal costs of the mental duress and lack of personal security can deter them from effectively doing their jobs. It may also discourage their social media presence, which is a platform for them to gauge reader feedback and build a strong footprint that can be leveraged in their career.
Dixit stated that once her #OperationBetiUthao report on the trafficking of 31 girls broke, all the attention was turned away from the story and directed towards shaming her. Women are unable to cover certain topics without compromising their safety, which then sidelines important stories and can erode the freedom of press. Last year, Indian politician, Mahua Moitra was falsely accused of plagiarizing her speech and was trolled for it which she stated was a “clear attempt to obfuscate the real issues”. As Malini Subramaniam, a freelance journalist stated: “not reporting is not really an option” or in Moitra’s case: not voicing her views in parliament is not an option, as that is exactly what the trolls want.
“Just ignore it” Is Not a Solution
Asking women in the public eye to “ignore” the online hate or to “grow a thick skin” are reductive answers. While in an ideal world it shouldn’t but since it does come with the job, then the onus also lies with newsrooms, for example, to build on resources to both physically and psychologically support its journalists on and off the field. It’s also important for women to support other women, or at least keep from adding to the online hate. A study found that women are almost as likely as men to use derogatory and misogynistic insults on Twitter, and direct them at other women.
The online harassment faced by women is less about their arguments and more about their identity, which makes it more severe and puts them at risk of physical harm. The increase in gendered online abuse is a lesser talked about fallout of the pandemic. It can mean self-censorship and withdrawal for women from sharing their work and opinions online, which further discourages other women. When women are openly discredited online, there is no ‘democratic’ and ‘equal’ expression of opinion in question.
Picture Credits: Illustration by Jackie Lay, The Atlantic
Author’s Bio: Devika Goswami is a student of Economics and Media Studies at Ashoka University.
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