By Jim Dougherty
Indian NGO Internet Democracy Project recently published a disturbing account of crude sexual and violent social media posts towards women in India. Frankly, it shocked me to see such overt online misogyny.
When I started to contemplate how widespread this behavior might be, it occurred to me that everyone may be somewhat callous to non-sequitur denigration of women on social media. Understanding that women are the catalyst for all social networks that aren’t LinkedIn, this behavior is both irrational and disturbing.
Not just India, not just now
It might be helpful to define misogyny. The dictionary says it is: “hatred, dislike, or mistrust of women.” For the purposes of this piece, I’ll define online misogyny as any diminishing non-sequitur content towards a woman specifically because of her gender.
Dr. Judith Bennett wrote a fascinating piece about the historical evidence of misogyny as it relates to labor. She found a very specific example of “alewives” in British literature, describing how writers depicted women who worked with their husbands to create ale and how those products were diminished because of the woman’s labor contribution. That was the 1700s.
Fast forward to present day. A picture taken unknowingly underneath a woman’s skirt is posted on Facebook provoking comments suggesting rape, a British television personality is bombarded with violent and sexual social comments when she suggested that an austerity measure may be unnecessary, film-maker Anita Sarkeesia’s social accounts are blasted with hateful, misogynist ramblings because she dared question the way that women are depicted in video games, singer Chris Brown responds to a comedienne’s tweet by boasting that he would defecate in her eye after she performed a sex act on him. There are myriad examples of this online misogyny, but it’s not simply an isolated act. The easy amplification of social media allows congruent comments to spread. Chris Brown’s followers even went so far to make death threats to the comedienne and to warn the Pope (via Twitter) that she was a “bushpig.”
With all of the over-the-top overt online misogyny that exists, one assumes that there is a higher magnitude of subtle misogyny that is less difficult to identify.
What is the consequence of online misogyny?
The Internet Democracy Project recommended adoption of the Twitter hashtag #misogynyalert to identify people are perpetuating this hateful content. Search for the hashtag on Twitter and see some of the vile language people have used to diminish women because of their gender. Though it trended in India briefly (reinforcing how widespread the problem is), the hashtag become latent. One assumes that the behavior has not.
Some compare misogynist speech to trolling or spamming, but it’s more insidious that either or those. Trolling is defined as someone who posts inflammatory,extraneous, or off-topic messages with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response. Spamming is defined as sending unsolicited bulk messages, especially advertising, indiscriminately. Online misogyny is gender-specific hate speech. With those parameters, it’s pretty easy to differentiate between those behaviors.
Which leads me to a question without a clear answer: what is the consequence for this behavior? Social networks don’t seem excited to police it. When it serves to assassinate a woman’s character, simply blocking one person isn’t an effective means to combat it. This is a problem with a rich history and now very efficient amplification. A recent study suggests that the best defense against negative speech on the Internet is to ignore it, yet it seems morally wrong to ignore hateful comments.
What do you think? Can online misogyny be diminished? Is it indicative of a greater ill? Is there any way to combat it? Does it affect the way that women use social media?