A 2018 report by the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Simonovic Dubravka, revealed that 1 in 10 women has experienced some form of online violence from the age of 15. Since the COVID-19 pandemic there has been a worldwide spike in cases of technology-facilitated gender based violence (TFGBV). The indispensability of digital technologies for social, personal, and professional interactions has put women at a heightened risk of online violence. In recent years there has been a growing awareness of the disproportionate impact technology-facilitated violence has on women. In addition to the invasion of privacy and danger to physical safety, studies have also documented the psychological, emotional and economic harm of TFGBV.
This piece highlights overlooked aspects of one frequently cited harm of TFGBV – the silencing of women – often also referred to as the ‘chilling effect’ on speech. Borrowing from recent scholarship by a Toronto-based social scientist and legal academic, Jon Penney, on the ‘productive’ outcomes of the chilling effect, this piece argues for an expanded understanding of the impact TFGBV has on shaping how women express themselves online.
In response to the violence and abuse they face online, women censor themselves, stepping back from conversations online, and sometimes exiting online spaces entirely. However, the chilling effect of online violence is not just about silencing oneself due to the fear of harm. Often, women continue to speak and exist online but alter their speech and behaviour to comply with perceived social norms.
Penney argues that the reduction of ‘chilling effects’ to deterrence is a result of the prevailing legal jurisprudence on free speech. Courts have used the term to describe the suppression of speech and expression brought upon by overbroad legal provisions and the fear of punishment due to being surveilled. This approach assumes that when faced by the fear of harm or punishment by the law for exercising their right to free speech, citizens will simply abstain from speaking. Such a limited reading of chilling effects is because the liberal patina of the law views individuals as rational actors making calculated cost-benefit analysis. Although Penney’s analysis focuses on the United States, it also holds true for other jurisdictions such as India.
In response to the violence and abuse they face online, women censor themselves, stepping back from conversations online, and sometimes exiting online spaces entirely.
In a 2022 controversy over the alleged use of the snooping software ‘Pegasus’ by the Indian government, the Supreme Court of India observed that, “It is undeniable that surveillance and the knowledge that one is under the threat of being spied on can affect the way an individual decides to exercise his or her rights. Such a scenario may result in self-censorship.”
In reality, Penney observes that empirical studies evidence that when faced with the threat of censure, individuals do not just disengage, but also make behavioural adjustments towards assimilation with social norms. He terms these the “productive” outcomes of chilling effects which operate alongside the deterrent outcomes.
Penney’s expanded interpretation of chilling effects is illustrated by the various ways in which women adjust their speech and behaviour to avoid abusive and violent encounters on the internet and keep themselves safe. Additionally, it also helps us understand how the increasing normalisation of TFGBV influences the conduct of men online.
Assuming a male identity
A case study on social-media usage by women in Myanmar, cited in the 2022 report ‘Feminist Perspectives on Social Media Governance’ by IT for Change, revealed that women often use Facebook accounts belonging to the male members in their family, to conceal their identity and to remain safe online. Helani Galpaya from the organisation LIRNEAsia who authored the study, notes that at times women also created alternate social media accounts, assuming the identity of a Bama Buddhist male (the dominant ethnic and religious group in Myanmar) when participating in political debates online. Galpaya observes that, “When you go to an online discussion forum where political issues are being debated, it often looks like a group of men are arguing […].” She argues that these are subversive tactics employed by women in Myanmar to be able to participate online.
Gender masking and assuming a male identity are common coping mechanisms used by women to keep themselves safe in environments that are hostile to them. For example, it is widely used by women who participate in the online gaming world, a space where gender-based harassment is known to be pervasive.
Women have devised ingenious ways to voice their opinions and participate in gendered spaces while evading violent repercussions. However, in order to do so, they are simultaneously being pushed to comply with patriarchal social norms of who is a legitimate participant. This paradox should be recognised. Whether it is discussing politics on the internet in Myanmar or playing online videogames, in their subversion women are compelled to erase their gender identity and present as male.
Tactics of partial or hidden revelations
Even when women do reveal their identity online, often they must perform an acceptable femininity that is dictated by prevailing gender-norms. To be able to participate online safely, young women adhere to stereotypical gender scripts, for instance, by cultivating a ‘good-girl image’. When there is ambiguity regarding being monitored or if certain speech or behaviour can result in abuse, compliance with social norms tends to be greater.
The persona of the ‘good girl’ is maintained by women not only to protect themselves from abuse by strangers on the internet, but also censure from those within their homes. A study titled “Family honor, cultural norms and social networking,” on self-presentation by young Muslim women online in India revealed that often their social media accounts were monitored by family members. Compliance with family values, and cultural and religious norms dictated which photos of themselves the women chose to post online. These efforts were made to avoid negative comments and disapproval from family members.
Gender masking and assuming a male identity are common coping mechanisms used by women to keep themselves safe in environments that are hostile to them.
At times, the affordances of social media are used to construct private spaces within which women feel safe to express themselves more freely. A study on “Gendered self-representation and empowerment on social media in the United Arab Emirates,” noted that women usually sought to limit people with access to their profiles to ‘close friends’. In the rare instances where they allowed their social media profiles to be public, it is devoid of any personal details, and is only used for professional communications or to follow well-known personalities.
Avoidance and assimilatory outcomes of chilling effects can result in homogenous online environments where unconventional behaviour is chastised, and social conformity incentivised.
Jon Penney’s expansive take on the chilling effect also helps us account for the behaviour of men in online spaces that are underwritten by regressive gender norms.
Participating in toxic behaviour
For men, participating in toxic behaviour online has become one way to showcase compliance with social norms around masculinity on the internet. For example, men-only online groups on messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram have become forums for the performance and validation of masculinity. Acts such as sharing of misogynistic memes and jokes, and sharing of non-consensual intimate images and violent videos within these homosocial spaces become a way for members to maintain a ‘standard’ of masculinity. These are acts of assimilation and conformity to an emerging social norm that must be accounted for when studying the chilling effects of TFGBV. Deviance from what is considered the norm in those spaces, for instance if a man speaks out against misogyny online, could potentially result in ostracization and social sanction.
The persona of the ‘good girl’ is maintained by women not only to protect themselves from abuse by strangers on the internet, but also censure from those within their homes.
The legal imagination of chilling-effects is a limited one that is reduced to the inhibition to speak. Compared to a simplistic deterrence theory of the chilling effect, a broader interpretation also considers the behavioural adjustments that individuals undertake to adhere to perceived social norms. It provides insight into how both women and men cope with and respond to pervasive TFGBV. Importantly, Penney’s expanded reading of chilling effects allows us to recognise that women make various behavioural changes besides silencing themselves when faced with fear of abuse and harassment online that we may otherwise end up overlooking. These changes include assuming male identities, masking real-names, and cultivating a persona that adheres to traditional gender scripts. The intention here is not to divest women of their agency to act within patriarchal spaces on the internet, but to draw attention to the erasures, contradictions, and patriarchal assimilations that women are compelled to undertake in exchange for safety online.