Why is a woman’s experience online so different?

Working Online

Cyberbullying, trolling, internet abuse — however you dress it up, online harassment prevents many people from sharing their opinions for fear of triggering an abusive response and losing their privacy.

As women slowly make gains – climbing up ladders, shattering ceilings, and sending out a Tweet or two – we face an aggressive push back aimed at silencing and discrediting us.

I am interested in what impact online misogyny has on women, both emotionally and professionally.

  • What does it mean to speak in the digital age when women and minorities are shamed and invalidated for even existing?
  • How is online culture stopping talented women from making a space for themselves in the digital arena?
  • Can we even promote gender equality in politics and political debate without addressing cyberbullying at the same time?

Cyberbullying is part of two broader issues: gender-based violence and everyday sexism. The existence of violence against women in their homes, offices, on the streets, or public transport is also a characteristic of our virtual communities.

The Internet could have been a second chance, a clean slate, for developing new ways of interacting and communicating. But instead, the Internet mirrors society’s offline anxieties, frustrations and prejudices.

Cyberbullying as a form of violence functions as an attack on women’s voices, careers, mental health, and dignity – the improvement of which is threatening to those who benefit most from social hierarchies based on gender or race.

What it comes down to is that a woman having an opinion is perceived as more offensive than the violence she endures for her words.

Instead of using law enforcement, tech companies and social media platforms to hold bullies and trolls accountable for their online hostility, the actions of abusers are normalized with justifications and victim-blaming. This is why we often hear “she deserved it,” or “she’s just looking for attention,” or “time to change the tampon.”

The blame for this abuse is shifted back to women as punishment for their disruption to patriarchy and the privileges that come with it. As Journalist Amanda Hess put it, “[Twitter]’s become just one of the many online spaces where men come to tell me to get out.” Regardless of widely-held assumptions that cyberbullying is an exclusively man’s sport, Demos found that aggressive Tweets are just as likely to be sent to women from other women as from men. Society has a collective problem with women speaking in male-dominated spaces.

According to Women Political Leaders Global Forum, almost 50 percent of women in politics across all countries, backgrounds, ages, positions and party affiliations receive harassing messages or violent threats about their abilities and/or work.

What we love to see in our male heroes – complexity, nuance, confidence and boldness – we resent in women. An ambitious and vocal woman is an unlikable character because she is crossing the boundaries of what is perceived to be ‘natural’ for women.

I encourage more sceptical readers to look up testimonies of prominent women about their experiences of online misogyny: feminist Jessica Valenti, advocate Monica Lewinsky, journalist Katie Couric, golfer Paige Spiranac, Canadian politicians Lenore Zann and Sandra Jansen, Welsh politician Leanne Wood… I could go on.   

Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have undoubtedly transformed the nature of information-sharing and political discussion. They have changed how politicians, businesses, international organisations, humanitarian agencies, civil society associations, unions and even militaries interact with citizens. But these same social media sites have also introduced a new way for citizens to hold people and organizations to account.

Nevertheless, for all the good that social media platforms bring us, they remain a difficult place for women and minorities to navigate.

User anonymity and free expression are indisputably the foundations of the Internet. These two founding principles help foster new conversations across distances, but they also sustain online violence, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, racism and ableism. I say misogyny, because women are much more likely to receive and report being stalked or harassed on the Internet than men – 72.5% of cases reported to Working to Halt Online Abuse come from women. The Guardian also conducted a study examining 1.4 million comments left by their readers since 1999. It found that out of the 10 writers who received the most offensive comments, 8 were women.

Why is it that women and other marginalized groups have to pay a price for this freedom? Why would anyone want to go through this?

Importantly, social media can boost the work of many women lawmakers because it functions as a low-cost political instrument and an alternative to other resources, such as political money and organization, which women have historically had less access to. But while there are many incentives for women to use social media platforms to disseminate their work, there are undeniable risks.

In another study Women Political Leaders Global Forum concludes that, “While both men and women express concern about the many pitfalls of political campaigning, females are more worried overall, particularly about gender discrimination, the difficulty of fundraising, negative advertising, the loss of privacy, and not being taken seriously.” Women’s concerns aren’t simply bouts of paranoia, but the results of painful experiences.

While formal barriers to women’s participation in politics have been abolished almost everywhere, informal hurdles continue to push women out of the debate. For women and other socially marginalized groups, the challenge to balance professional ambitions or personal commitments with an assessment of risks is very real.

In the digital world, a few bullies can quickly become an onslaught of aggressive but anonymous attacks. Moreover, the digital space reflects our times – an age of identity-based hostility where shameless “locker room” chat by those who hold the most social power is completely normalized.

“If the mere act of writing about women’s issues sets off a stream of harassment and threats, surely we are nowhere near where we need to be” Valenti wrote. 

I don’t think we are where we need to be. But at the moment I don’t see a clear path to a safer digital future for women, especially as our lives are increasingly played out in the digital public sphere.

The work that EUPanelWatch and organizations like it does to resist the prioritization of some voices over others shows that if we care about about transforming our political communities, we also have to do the important work of delegitimizing and denormalizing violence and cyberbullying, because after all, they are two sides of the same coin.