News Carol Hunt

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Women - keep off the internet

Carol Hunt asks why women are increasingly being bullied off social media sites

Published 17/08/2014 | 02:30

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Mary Beard

A piece of advice? If you'd like to engage with the world of social media without suffering harassment, abuse or threats of physical or sexual violence then don't out yourself as a . . . what? A racist with a fetish for women's clothes? A Tea Party supporter? A member of the Golden Dawn or the KKK? A Unitarian or a Jew? Nope, none of the above. If you don't want to receive bullying abuse online then don't let anyone know that you're a . . . woman.

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Yes, women are seen as justifiable targets on social media sites purely because of their gender. Of all the harassment incidents reported to the organisation Working to Halt Online Abuse between 2000 and 2012, 75.2pc were from females. And this isn't because we just can't take a bit of criticism, or a "joke" or that we run to complain if anyone says boo to us.

It's because, as women, we often face persistent misogyny and mob criticism if we dare to voice opinions online. And it's not what we say that matters, it's the fact that we are women saying it. Some years ago researchers at the University of Maryland set up a number of fake online accounts and found that those with feminine user-names incurred an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day. Male names received 3.7.

You think a dark city street at 3 am is a dodgy place for a woman to be? Try a discussion board on the internet if you've just posted something mildly opposing the status quo or the macho consensus. Suddenly, it's a free-for-all - where a group mentality uses the right to "free-speech" as an excuse to jump on a bandwagon of indignant outrage (women join in too - misogyny and bullying isn't just restricted to one gender unfortunately).

And while valid and robust criticism should always be welcomed by those who "put themselves out there", as it were, increasingly social forums are becoming spaces where an internet mob arises to lynch the reputation of a targeted individual. Think Mary Beard or the ex-Conservative MP Louise Mensch. This is when a sensible woman turns her computer off, even while she curses the bullies for forcing her to exit what should be an open, democratic space for civil conversation and constructive argument.

Last week in the UK, ex Labour policy advisor Charles Leadbeater was interviewed about his new report, 'A Better Web'. He concluded that "a pervading online misogyny is the most visible reason why the Internet is failing to live up to its potential to improve people's lives". Leadbeater added that he'd like to "create something like the Mary Beard Prize for women online, to support people who are supporting women to be able to use the internet safely".

Mary Beard, in case you're wondering, is a TV presenter and academic, a mild-mannered classicist, who happened to make an innocuous comment on BBC's Question Time about a report claiming that immigration had brought some benefits to local areas. The next day, commentators on a (now closed) website launched a vicious and horrific attack on her. In one of the milder examples Mary was called "a vile, spiteful excuse for a woman, who eats too much cabbage and has cheese straws for teeth".

Beard reeled from the vitriol "as though from a punch", calling it, "generic violent misogyny". But this is what often happens when women have the gall to say stuff on TV or radio or social media that the "status quo" - those macho trolls that like to bully and control comment online -don't like. As Leadbeater said last week: "It's outrageous that we've got an internet where women are regularly abused for appearing on television or appearing on Twitter. If that were to happen in a public space there would be outrage."

Most women who have any sort of public profile can sympathise with Mary. In my own limited foray into social media I have been called, "a stupid c**t"; a "piece of vermin"; a "b**ch-faced wagon"; a "sad excuse of a woman" amongst other, more unprintable gems. I've recently taken time off social media as there's only so much ill-informed vitriolic criticism - that people would never dare say to your face - a person can take at a time. But telling me to just close my laptop would be like saying, "don't talk to your friends". But sometimes the bullying works and women do indeed "shut the f**k up", as instructed by those brave, mainly anonymous bullies.

I know journalists, in Ireland and elsewhere, who have refused important social, political or feminist commissions, because they feel that the inevitable backlash they would receive online would not be worth it.

Last week The Guardian newspaper ran a piece about the increasing online abuse it receives following any articles on "women's topics", from the frivolous (body hair, topless sunbathing) to the serious (FGM, domestic violence). And as most bullies tend to be cowards, the paper suggested that perhaps anonymity should be an option rather than a default setting. Jemima Kiss, head of technology there noted, "It's well established that the quality and constructiveness of comments increases immediately with a real-name log-in. In a small minority of situations, anonymity allows commentators to protect their identities where they need to refer to their employers or a revealing personal experience for example. But it feels like the daily default of anonymity is now out of date . . ."

Kiss has a point. Even a cursory look at Twitter or other social media websites will show you that many who post under the protection of anonymity often don't see the need to follow basic rules of civilised conversation.

Well, say the collective mob exercising their "right to free speech", if you thin-skinned women can't take the heat maybe you shouldn't be on the internet. Which is a bit like saying if you don't want to get attacked or verbally abused while in public you shouldn't be out alone, walking. Reclaim the streets? Let's reclaim the internet too while we're at it.

Twitter: @carolmhunt

Sunday Independent

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