INTRODUCTION: THE INTERNET--A WEALTH OF RICHES?
The Internet, and digital media generally, offer enormous potential as spaces for engagement, activism, and contentious debates. The ideal of an all-inclusive, participatory space that is genuinely open to all poses a challenge for global feminism. Online spaces and platforms are notoriously hostile places for women who dare to share opinions or speak out against the crowd. Spaces such as Twitter or Facebook, which are ideally suited to advocacy, campaigning, and political speech, are increasingly spaces where women are shut down and excluded from public participation. Recent studies have shown that significant percentages of women and girls have faced abuse online, especially on social media, with the vast majority of such abuse motivated by sex and gender discrimination. (1)
Sadly, existing socio-legal structures and systems are failing to deal with this phenomenon and are instead perpetuating the harassment and discrimination that occurs online. Rather than providing a platform to facilitate campaigning for equality, anti-discrimination, and gender parity objectives, the Internet is evolving rapidly into a space which is increasingly hostile, particularly for vocal women advocates. The backlash that such women receive for speaking out--particularly about issues relating to gender equality--is not only damaging, but also severely undermines the idea of equality of participation in public life. Taking online violence against women in politics (OVAWP) as an example, this paper offers a fresh perspective on the dangerous, unchecked, and discriminatory phenomenon of online misogyny, advocating for greater anti-discrimination attention at national and international levels to safeguard the rise of global and digital feminism.
This article enriches existing scholarship relating to the abuse of women online and the damage that failure to tackle this problem has done to digital feminism. (1) In particular, it brings together perspectives from law, politics, and gender studies, using contemporary examples to offer a critique of this pressing issue. The discussion here not only outlines the failures of existing structures, but advocates for rapid responses and calls on platforms as well as regulators to effectively address gender-based abuse online.
Our research critically analyzes women's rights to freely express their views online, drawing on high-profile examples from the United Kingdom and further afield. These are particularly significant given limited empirical data dealing with online violence against women, especially in a global context. (2)
DIGITAL FEMINISM AND ACTIVISM: A FORCE FOR "GOOD"?
The Internet offers enormous potential for "good." Interactive online platforms allow for the rapid creation of networks and contacts, and enable meetings, communication, and engagement in ways that can benefit society. One of the most notable examples is that of digital political activism, a phenomenon most visibly illustrated by the Arab Spring and the role social media and online communications played in it, particularly for women. The potential for "good" on the Internet can be powerfully demonstrated through the role of social media platforms, which are spaces designed to actively encourage participation and the sharing of both information and content. Such interactive, user-led platforms should actively uphold the notion that the Internet is an open, all-inclusive and participatory space. However, recent trends in online abuse and social media misuse suggest that these ideals been overshadowed by the realities of online interaction. (2)
Increasingly, safe online participation is being threatened through manifestations of online violence, especially online violence against women. Such behaviors reflect the normalization of inequality offline and are online reflections of offline patriarchal tendencies. This directly undermines the ideals of the Internet, which instead of acting as a foundation for challenging everyday normalization of abuse and inequality, is being used as a tool for reinforcing inequality, and silencing women online. (3) This has become particularly evident through the phenomenon of online violence against women in politics (OVAWP).
A number of high-profile incidents demonstrate the pernicious nature of the backlash against women who speak out online or offer any opinion--controversial or otherwise--through social media. For instance, the United Kingdom's first black Member of Parliament, Diane Abbott, was targeted with more than 8,000 abusive tweets and messages sent directly to her Twitter account in the first six months of 2017. (4) This is not an isolated incident, with other high-profile political women becoming the targets of similar abusive and threatening messages, including the Mayor of Victoria, Lisa Helps, the Indian External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, and Scottish MP Joanna Cherry, QC. (5) More broadly, OVAW is also affecting women who are not involved in politics. The rise of harmful speech, online violence against women, and gender-based online abuse as a phenomenon has been rapid, with 46 percent of women worldwide receiving sexist or misogynist comments as a form of online abuse. (6) As such, as feminist movements and political power harness the power of the Internet, they receive significant backlash, jeopardizing their ability to participate fully and equally online. (7) In many respects, digital feminism is an example of the "good" Internet at work, allowing individuals with shared beliefs to connect remotely. (8) The facilitation of democratization that the Internet and interactive platforms offers should be the manifestation of equal participation online, which is essential to ensure that women's voices are heard at every level. The potential of the Internet to encourage participation is enormous, especially for global feminism and feminist activism. It should be a space in which participation is equal, and in which all opinions can be voiced.
In an increasingly digital global society where gender stereotypes are once more powerful signals and political rallying cries, it is becoming more difficult to battle everyday misogyny, especially when the Internet gives such attitudes and behaviors a voice that is too frequently accepted without challenge. (3) If the Internet is at its strongest when there is an open, respectful exchange of ideas and debate, social media often acts as an echo chamber for those with anti-feminist agendas and opinions. More concerning--especially for freedom of expression--is how the echo chamber effect often breeds and encourages ideas that are acceptable only to those who "shout the loudest." This means that other opinions, including dissenting ones, are shut down and pushed out of the online space. (9) This is partially attributable to various ascendant right-wing political factions, but also to those already in positions of political power. The right-wing elements in Brazil (10) and the United States, (11) to name but two examples, exhibit incendiary (12) and patriarchal tendencies that augment the rhetoric of gendered stereotypes, which is amplified when these factions merge with the ideologies of right-wing populist parties, and use social media platforms to spread their message. (13)
This phenomenon occurred not only in the United Kingdom General Election in 2017, but also in the Indian election campaigns of 2019, which was a model case for how quickly social media can shift from being a tool to being a weapon used to actively incite violence. (14) The prevalence and nature of the right-wing rhetoric increasingly regarded as populist is broadly damaging to the participatory rights of minorities and women. (15) In parts of Europe, anti-equality ideologies are gaining traction in mainstream politics and having a real impact on government policy. These ideologies are now setting agendas that are starkly anti-feminist, anti-gender, and pro-misogyny--a point made abundantly clear with Hungary's recently announced income tax breaks for women who have four or more children. (16)
As right-wing actors rise in prominence, the dark financing of divisive politics is increasing. In some case, unregulated, "dark" money is dictating elected politicians, which can lead to the exclusion of the voices of women politicians. (17) This occurred in the UK in the context of the Brexit debate, when three Conservative women MPs departed from the ruling party. (4) These changes can lead to derogatory and anti-equality policies, which encourage those who already go after women online. A "politics of fear" strategy further contributes to this, sending higher volumes of abusive messages across a wider spectrum. (18) Rather than supporting the removal of barriers to participation, such politics reinforce gender stereotypes and the idea that violence against women, including online violence, is acceptable. It is already incredibly difficult to challenge rote sexism, and this is compounded when such sexism is advanced by powerful public figures such as Presidents Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. (19)
All of these examples are damaging to gender equality and participation, both online and offline. (20) They are also, without question, direct challenges to contemporary and digital feminism. New spaces have presented new challenges to equality, women's rights, and feminism, as it has previously, must now evolve to take on this new, global feminist challenge.
Coslett and Baxter in 2013 identified that violence against women and the media are just two of the challenges facing modern feminism. (21) It remains striking that in the digital age, the media remains a barrier to the advancement of the feminist agenda, and to equality of participation. How can gender equality be achieved if those who have the power and ability to change the laws do not change their behavior? The widespread entrenchment of anti-feminist...