If you are a woman with an opinion on the online space, there is every chance that you will have been subject to some sort of misogynistic abuse. On twitter, you see it every single day. Women with an opinion are routinely asked to shut up, go back to the kitchen, called ugly, obscene language is used against them, or worse, actual threats of rape made online. Women who write opinion pieces find their comment spaces filled with abuse of the vilest sort. When abusers are blocked, they turn hydra-headed and pop up under multiple identities. What is worse is that the rest of the internet looks on this with no reaction, metaphorical popcorn tubs in hand, watching the show. Very few will actually step in and castigate the abuser.
I’m not going to name the women I’ve seen get harassed every single day that they’re online. They represent a diverse group, from television anchors, to poets and feminists, to movie actresses, to journalists to regular professionals. The crime of these women is that they have an opinion, and they will air it. Their opinion might go counter to the perceived notion by a great many of those who populate social media spaces, but because they are women, they are denied the civility of the space to voice their opinion. Very often, the reaction to some tweets becomes nothing better than a lynch mob, baying for blood, rather than space for civil discussion on a topic where differing opinions might be entertained and listened to.
Journalist Laurie Penny wrote this in her piece on misogynistic abuse on the internet, A Woman’s Opinion Is The Miniskirt of the Internet. “Many commentators, wondering aloud where all the strong female voices are, close their eyes to how normal this sort of threat has become. Most mornings, when I go to check my email, Twitter and Facebook accounts, I have to sift through threats of violence, public speculations about my sexual preference and the odour and capacity of my genitals, and attempts to write off challenging ideas with the declaration that, since I and my friends are so very unattractive, anything we have to say must be irrelevant.”
“Interesting, because there’s a tendency, when women complain about online abuse, to dismiss the men who spew it as fringe characters and teenagers. The belief is that mainstream, adult men with families and jobs aren’t doing this, which allows the denialist to claim, therefore, that misogyny is not tolerated or encouraged by society, making women who complain about it whiners and babies,” says Amanda Marcotte, in her feature, Online Misogynists Are Not Fringe Characters.
And here’s how Mary Beard OBE, Professor of Classics at Cambridge, author, writer and presenter of BBC2’s BAFTA-nominated Pompeii and Meet The Romans, dealt with the online abuse she faced. Says an article about her experience, “But rather than sit back, ignore it and wish it all away, Beard decided to drag her bullies and their depraved comments out into the open in the hope that she might protect other, more vulnerable, women (and men) from a similar experience.” Beard says, ‘Women are too often told just to shut up and don’t make a fuss and it’ll go away. But not this time. What about all those other women who might think twice about appearing on Question Time after this?”
An interesting development happened as a result of the National Consultation on Online Gender Abuse held in Delhi on the 18th of February, organised by Internet Democracy. Sabbah Haji (@imsabbah on twitter) was amongst the participants who included gender rights groups, bloggers, activists and journalists, amongst others. She says, “Amidst all the brilliance that was happening there in terms of discussion and way forward and legal recourse and stuff, all of us decided that when we leave the room, we DO something about abuse online.”
The thought behind this was the same as it is in the real world. Most misogynistic abuse is akin to real life bullying, confronting an offender as a group makes it more likely that the abuser will back off and retreat. Even if they don’t, the important thing is not to let misogynistic abuse pass uncommented on, because that lack of reaction legitimises it, makes it acceptable, makes it part of the deal for being online in social media. As Sabbah says, “Basically, don’t just let it go, because it makes offensive behaviour seem acceptable, in the same way that we have seen street harassment to be ‘not a big deal’. The ‘Don’t-feed-the-troll’ attitude is well and good but when it comes to the internet space and women in it, it is not just gender-neutral, mindless trolling/abuse; there is a woman-specific tinge to abuse and it reflects an attitude that has to go. Grouping up online and proactively and publicly having a go at offensive behaviour, not letting it stand, is important.”
The @iNetDemocracy team asked for tweeters to come up with a hashtag that succinctly described what they were trying to achieve, mainly draw the attention of folks to online misogyny on twitter. Anyone could RT a misogynistic tweet by using the hashtag and then, having noted the tweet, others could step in and support the person being harassed. After a slew of suggestions were received, the team shortlisted #MisogynyAlert as the hashtag to be used and publicised the hashtag on twitter. The conveners of the Internet Democracy Project would check the hashtag from time to time and respond to reported misogynistic abuse.
Here’s how the tag can be used by those who might be interested:
1. Check in on the hashtag #MisogynyAlert from time to time. Save it in your Search.
2. When reporting abuse, the hashtag has to be added to the offensive tweet or RT, or the Tweet link should be posted.
2. When engaging with the offender, again, the hashtag must be used.
3. Any response, RT, retort, reply all, needs the hashtag.
This creates a chain online, a train of tweets for everyone to follow and to see the back and forth, and more importantly, to see that there is an active online group at any given point of time that is watching what you say and is willing to come after you for it.
Strength in numbers, cementing a fluid online group to intervene and do a takedown at any time.
The team has dealt with a few cases tagged with the #MisogynyAlert hashtag so far, in one case the abuser disappeared, in another, the abuser deleted the offensive tweet, and the third, one I had the good fortune to engage with too, in the course of responding to the misogynistic tweet, was so dense that after a point it made no sense engaging with him.
Another interesting hashtag started by feminist blogger Sady Doyle, #MenCallMeThings sought to bring to the foreground sexist and misogynistic abuse women face in the online space. In a Time article on this hashtag, writer Megan Gibson says, aptly, “At this moment in time, you can work, socialise, date, learn, communicate and debate online. There is no longer a divide. What is happening online is happening in real life. This type of abuse reflects real-life attitudes, real-life misogyny and it’s prolific.”
Online abuse is as invasive, disturbing and an infringement of one’s rights as is street sexual harassment and deserves to be treated as such. Women need to stand up against it, and not get shouted off online spaces. Other women and men need to step in when a woman is being harassed online. A hashtag like this might be just the start of an effort at acknowledging that online harassment is not acceptable, nor for the woman at the receiving end of the abuse, nor for the others around her. That no woman should fear being online because of the abuse she faces, simply because she is a woman. It might not be enough, there definitely is the need for more to be done, legal recourse is an option that some women are exercising now, but yes, this is a start.
I’d like to end with these words from the Laurie Penny article I quoted above, “I believe the time for silence is over. If we want to build a truly fair and vibrant community of political debate and social exchange, online and offline, it’s not enough to ignore harassment of women, LGBT people or people of colour who dare to have opinions. Free speech means being free to use technology and participate in public life without fear of abuse…”