Digital Citizenship & Feminism

*This blog is a project for Study Unit MCS3953, University of Malta*

As long as I can remember we have always been taught how to behave online. We were always told the do’s and don’ts and the red flags that we should keep an eye out for. However, all these years later, we are still hearing the same things in school and warning our children at home, but the reality of internet trolls is still ever-present. Being a woman myself I can say firsthand that forms of cyberbullying and sexual harassment exist online and I have been on the receiving end of many.

All throughout the world around three-quarters of the female population have experienced some form or other of violence on digital platforms. These types of cyber-violences vary from hacking, surveillance, harassment, death threats, recruitment, and malicious distribution (Broadband Commission for Digital Development, 2015). All types of violence, whether online or offline, “feed into each other”. According to the Broadband Commission for Digital Development, “abuse may be confined to networked technologies or may be supplemented by offline harassment including vandalism, phone calls, and physical assault”.

Although the discrimination against women has been ever-present throughout time, undoubtedly online means have added fuel to the fire. This is because the introduction of porn sites, sex trafficking, Instagram models, and the introduction of women in advertising, has portrayed a sense of the ‘perfect woman’, which no human woman can ever compare to. Many studies have been carried out, based on the representation of sexual violence and the portrayal of women’s bodies in media content has been a contributing factor to the normalisation of sexual violence and inequalities. These studies, influenced by psychoanalysis have clearly portrayed how the film industry has been a pioneer in the discrimination of women in society. Laura Mulvey, a British feminist film theorist, has contributed heavily to these studies with the theory of the male gaze and sexual objectification. A sociologist, Gaye Tuchman, pointed out the symbolic annihilation of women as portrayed in media discourse, answering the question: How do the media portray women?

Various statistics suggest that presently, more than 4 million websites offer pornography and pornographic content. This means that these sites constitute 12% of the total number of websites worldwide. It is shocking to note that 100,000 of these sites offer child pornography. According to the Feminist Peace Network, the online pornography industry makes a turnover of £97.06 billion per year. This means that they exceed the yearly turnover of huge companies such as Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Amazon, Netflix, and Apple combined! Before the uproar of social media, sex trafficking happened only in third-world countries where access to the internet was limited. However, new media has now enhanced the trafficking of women, girls, and boys!

Findings carried out by various researchers have clearly pointed out that the media content that is fed to us on a daily basis, has been a contributing factor to the reproduction of sexist stereotypes. These stereotypes portray the male as violent, dominant, independent, aggressive, and powerful. All the while females cannot have these traits or they will be considered manly. Instead, women are seen to be emotional, vulnerable, dependant, and sensitive. The most shocking revelation of all is that most news portals, when portraying news of assault or violence against women, portray the women in a negative light. This meaning that they indirectly blame the women for the assault inflicted upon them, stating that ‘they were asking for it by wearing that short a skirt’. Instead of blaming women for the way they dress, why don’t we blame the men for not having enough self-restraint to ‘keep it in their pants’? In fact, the aggressors are almost never part of the news report.

The topic of cyber violence has been a driving force in many public debates and in recent years this has been present in Mexico. In the year 2016, at least ten women, being under the age of thirty, have taken to social media to confess that they had been harassed by men in a public space. The names of these aggressors were publicised and instead of lightening the burden, they became victims yet again, this time of sexual violence and death threats. These threats were delivered by online means, namely, Facebook and Twitter. As a response to this, the hashtag #MyFirstHarassment was created in Spanish and 10,000 women opened up about their experience as victims of sexual violence. Similarly, in October 2017, in the USA, the hashtag #MeToo was created. The aim of this hashtag was too out Harvey Weinstein, a well-known Hollywood producer, as a sexual aggressor. This too generated worldwide hype and was an opportunity for millions of women to unburden themselves from past experiences of sexual harassment. This movement also prompted a famous director, Jay Roach, to come up with an idea of a movie plot where 3 women were sexually harassed in the workplace and how in the end they managed to stand up to him. The movie, “Bombshell”, starring Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, and Margot Robbie, is based on the true story of Roger Ailes, the former head of Fox News.

So what can we conclude about the current situation of violence against women online? Basically, we can say that the battle that started being fought in the 1960s is still going and the introduction of the new media has done nothing to help win it. If anything, it has contributed to media sexism and male-dominated power structures. According to Gallager (2002), “this still revolves around the most basic questions of power, values, access, and exclusion”. But to end on a light note, we can say that there may be a light at the end of the tunnel, especially this year, with the election of Kamala Harris as the first-ever female Vice President of the US!

References:

  1. Akwugo Emejulu & Callum McGregor (2019) Towards a radical digital citizenship in digital education, Critical Studies in Education, 60:1, 131–147, DOI: 10.1080/17508487.2016.1234494
  2. Broadband Commission for Digital Development (2015) Cyber-Violence Against Women and Girls: A World-wide Wake-up Call [online] Available at: http://www.unesco.org/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/CI/CI/images/wsis/GenderReport2015FINAL.pdf [Accessed 2 May 2017]
  3. Gallagher, M. (2015), Gender, Media, ICTs and Journalism: 20 Years After the BPfA Forum [online] Available at: http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/CI/CI/pdf/1_2_keynote_lecture_margaret_gallagher.pdf [Accessed 12 May 2016]

Two Communications students studying at the University of Malta who are fascinated by the power of the online voice!