4-10 March 2016 #798

Trapped in the Net

The parallel universe of social media is inhospitable terrain for women
Rubeena Mahato

A disturbing number of people on social media today feel compelled to censor themselves and shy away from debates and engagement for fear of online abuse. Abuse existed before the internet, of course, but the new medium has made such attacks easier and more frequent.

You can comfortably sit in your home behind a computer, doling out patronising, unkind and unsavoury remarks at people, smug in your own condescension. While people would think twice before doing so in the real world, somehow the internet and the hyper-expressive world of social media make it easier for people to treat such behaviour as acceptable. Trolls think they are dissidents, and you are expected to take insults in the name of free speech.

And if you happen to be a woman online, chances are that you face repeated and targeted attacks, unfair stereotyping and criticism not just for your opinion but simply for having an online existence.

In my five years of having a public twitter account, I have seen my fair share of harassment targeted at women for all kind of reasons: for speaking up as well as for keeping quiet, for being a ‘feminist’ and alternatively for ‘not’, for the kind of clothes we wear and for our personal choices. Irrespective of what you say, if you are a woman with an opinion, be prepared for some unprovoked and irrelevant references to your body, and lots and lots of ‘mansplaining’.

Men also receive abuse, but women even on opposite sides of the political and ideological spectrum often find themselves to be the subject of same sexual jokes and denigration. Men will be attacked for being callous, dishonest, crooks and corrupt but if a woman offends you she is either a crazed ‘feminist’ or a ‘slut’. Women are not thought of as independent, thinking beings with free will and their opinions are at most dismissed as being ‘manipulated’ or ‘guided’ by others.

It’s a man’s world out there, but the virtual world is even more male-dominated. If anything, the misogyny of the everyday world seems to be magnified in the cyberspace for women who decide to put themselves out there. And the solution to this? We are told to ignore the abusers and grow a thick skin unless they really mean ‘physical harm’, just like we are told in the real world. Block and delete and forget about it, we are advised by well-meaning friends. We do so, but no one expects accountability from the abusers.

Women have often found themselves cut off from public spaces and now it is the online space where they feel marginalised. Even without trolls, it is certainly not a place where women can expect to interact on equal terms. If , like me, you found the all-male panels of the real world frustrating and came here expecting no one would cut you off mid-sentence, be prepared to be disappointed. There will always be some guy explaining your own ideas to you before telling you ‘you don’t really understand’. Rarely are men questioned in the same way. In fact people who bully, harass and troll women are often promoted by prominent people on social media who either don’t seem to care or understand how their endorsement holds women back.

Some people find it odd that I tweet about politics, and they make it a point to tell me that in not very flattering ways. I have been a political reporter and columnist for Nepali Times for five years, I studied politics in university and this is what I do. Should I apologise for doing what most men can do without being questioned? Is there a list of things that women should not talk about in social media lest it makes the men uncomfortable? Avoid this place altogether, we tell ourselves. Women do not need yet another place where they have to learn the rules of what they can and cannot do.

The internet was once lauded as a Liberation Technology helping people achieve freedoms, demand transparency from their governments and fight authoritarians. But social media also stifles free and constructive debate and sharpens differences instead. It was supposed to be a place where people could engage, interact and seek consensus. It has turned into a virtual battlefield where lies, slander, propaganda and hate speech force people into isolated echo chambers. There is little scope for thoughtful, considered and balanced discussions as Social media prefers certainty over nuance, instantaneousness over substance and depth, and lazy stereotyping over acceptance of diverse realities.

There must be more meaningful ways to engage in civilised public debate online, without cyber-bullying and harassment. Until that happens, the internet will remain an inhospitable and unequal terrain for most people, including women.

Read also:

Online violence against women, Sahina Shrestha

Right fight, International Women's Day Package

Land of our daughters, Editorial

Taboo no more, Ayesha Shakya

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