Online gender-based violence is yet another expression of the structural violence women face in everyday life. It is particularly harsh in the case of the more high-profile, critical and vocal women, such as activists who denounce patriarchy more strongly and effectively. It is even more brutal with black, indigenous, lesbian and trans women and other groups of women who are discriminated against. But no woman who raises her voice even slightly and achieves some degree of visibility is free from suffering online gender-based violence.
Sometimes that visibility comes suddenly and unexpectedly: a tweet that becomes too popular or a Facebook post that goes viral and attracts hundreds of comments, or perhaps a photo or video that was never meant to be public. These may leave us vulnerable to an army of trolls, with nothing but our own words to defend ourselves, and sometimes with no other choice but to remain silent and resort to self-censorship. Shut down our accounts or make them private, go offline for a while, delete any “inconvenient” content. These are our options. Another woman silenced is another victory for misogynist trolls.
Another woman silenced is another victory for misogynist trolls.
Some approaches address this issue by demanding laws that regulate so-called “hate speech” on the internet (in an earlier post, we warned about some of the risks of this approach). Other approaches focus more on the need for online media and service providers to self-regulate through the implementation of their own rules and methods for monitoring offensive content and malicious behaviour. Still other approaches emphasise self-protection, calling on women to minimise risks, in the understanding that it is up to us to be aware of “the dangers on social media” and avoid getting into trouble.
Here I am going to explore a different approach, which I call “technopolitical” because it allows us to reflect on technological tools and their implications for women speaking publicly online, with the aim of finding alternatives for a safer and more satisfactory life online, without having to sacrifice our freedom of speech.
What we have today
The most accessible online communication infrastructures we have today are Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other centralised private platforms. These tools are used by a great number of women to express themselves in a wide variety of ways through their computers and mobile phones.
In exchange, we not only surrender our personal information to these companies, thus already compromising our safety, we are also left almost entirely at the mercy of their rules when it comes to managing the way we express ourselves online, and that makes us more vulnerable to violence. For example, often when we respond angrily to taunting comments from violent users we end up violating the platform’s content policy and risk being reported and having our own account closed, instead of the violent user’s account. Ultimately we are subject to the rules, control and overview of a private company of which we are merely clients and over whose principles, codes of conduct, rules and features we have no real say.
Ultimately we are subject to the rules, control and overview of a private company of which we are merely clients and over whose principles, codes of conduct, rules and features we have no real say.
These platforms provide very limited self-protection tools: privacy settings with few options (often only the choice of setting your account to public or private), blocking users, or reporting violent content. In addition, companies usually have economic incentives to take a conservative approach to content legislation and implement automatic mechanisms to prevent conflicts. A typical example is how easily “inappropriate” images are removed from Facebook or how often YouTube channels are closed for alleged copyright violations.
Should we design alternatives?
One possible option is, of course, to go offline permanently. Using the internet for personal communication only, for private interaction and not much more. Avoiding exposure, just as we avoid wearing certain clothes or walking down certain parts of town or travelling “alone”.
But if we start transforming our fears into possibilities and our criticism into action, we can turn all of this into legitimate online communication demands. What do we want from a communication tool, now that we know about and have experienced online violence issues? What do we need to protect the freedom of expression of women (and other vulnerable groups)? The following is a preliminary list of ideas:
- Communication that is not driven by views and reactions. The reach of an online publication should not be defined by algorithms that measure relevance based on popularity. Instead, we must return to a more organic communication that does not apply opaque factors and automated mechanisms we don’t understand to speed up or block expression. If something goes viral, it should be prompted by social interaction and not by algorithms.
- Tools that promote more autonomous discussions. This entails giving women greater control over the posting of responses and comments to what they say online. Nobody should be forced to read, or even receive, comments from anyone in response to everything they say (with the exception, perhaps, of those who hold publicly accountable positions).
- A healthy digital environment, where our attention is not held hostage. We are more vulnerable to online violence when technology keeps us in a constant state of alert, answering every notification, permanently prompted to see what is going on and announce our every activity (what are you doing?, what’s on your mind?) and responding to every comment in real time. Commercial social media platforms, with their red alerts notifying us of even the most meaningless event, can turn into a toxic and addictive environment. And their intention is not to torture us; rather they are designed based on careful research to make the most profit and have users connected and interacting as much as possible.
Commercial social media platforms, with their red alerts notifying us of even the most meaningless event, can turn into a toxic and addictive environment. And their intention is not to torture us; rather they are designed based on careful research to make the most profit and have users connected and interacting as much as possible.
- A business model not based on big data or surveillance. We need tools designed to protect our privacy, although the leading platforms are currently geared to do exactly the opposite. It is unacceptable that as we express our views publicly online (be they political, artistic or other) we are at the same time inadvertently building advertising profiles, employment records, credit standings and personal histories for purposes that we neither fully understand nor consent to.
- The right to anonymity and to use aliases. There should be no requirement to use real names that expose the identity of women, making them more vulnerable to threats for exercising their freedom of expression online.
- No automated censorship mechanisms. This often happens when social media algorithms “detect” inappropriate content and limit its reach by hiding or deleting it. This may save time and money in the efforts to control violent content, but it is a private, automated and generally conservative form of justice. New forms of community protection and control are necessary, with rules developed and agreed on by women users.
- Allowing for real portability of data, so that if women users are uncomfortable with a social media platform they can migrate to other platforms without losing any content. There should also be a readily available feature that allows users to permanently eliminate all their information if they wish to do so.
Many of these advantages are available for women who use blogs or personal websites as their means of online expression. In fact, social media could be understood as a limited and centralised form of blog.
A personal blog allows for simple and instant posting, notifying followers of new posts via RSS. Comments are easily posted, but also easily moderated, and they remain under full control of the administrator. You have the option of reading comments before allowing them to be posted, or configuring them in a range of ways, even disabling them entirely, or enabling them for certain periods of time, or disabling them for certain content and enabling them for others. This gives you more time to respond and allows you to do so more calmly. Trolls who are unhappy with your comments policy (because your blog can be governed by your own policy) could create their own blogs with the sole aim of attacking you, but that would require work and that is enough to put off most trolls (who can find easier targets on social media). Like your body, your blog can be your domain.
But as blogs and personal websites are not constantly suggesting “who to follow” and they do not generate the placebo of an audience, it is easy to feel that they lack a community. They are self-managed, but they also require more self-protection and some technical, or even financial, resources that are not available to all women.
Blogs are self-managed, but they also require more self-protection and some technical, or even financial, resources that are not available to all women.
That is where feminist activism comes in. As feminists we need to strengthen communication tactics that, in addition to promoting self-protection and giving us feminist defence tools, will allow us to further our struggle. One option is to create together, managing content as a community, as many online feminist media and publications are doing. It is also important to read and disseminate each other’s work, facilitating access to feminist thinking through digital libraries and open repositories. Another possibility is to build technological tools for an open and at the same time safe communication, with the characteristics described above. We do not need to build these from scratch. There are many free software applications available for creating communities and networks that can be used creatively to design better spaces for communication.
It is also important to read and disseminate each other’s work, facilitating access to feminist thinking through digital libraries and open repositories.
These alternatives are probably not 100% effective against online violence, because, as noted above, this violence is rooted in patriarchy and structural violence, which a technological tool alone cannot combat. But a critical assessment of the tools available and, in particular, of the underlying technopolitics, is possible and necessary. It is what allows us to continue building community alternatives for feminist communication.
A critical assessment of the tools available and, in particular, of the underlying technopolitics, is possible and necessary. It is what allows us to continue building community alternatives for feminist communication.