The Age of Anonymous: Hate Speech on the Internet

by | October 9, 2014
filed under Feminism

Photo of computer keyboard in blue lightThe far reaching abilities of the internet have opened many doors for all of us, but they have also exposed us to a new racist, classist, homophobic, and (especially) misogynistic rhetoric that endangers the progressive ideals we’ve spent decades working towards.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I think the internet has been a great tool for spreading equality, and it has certainly been an excellent platform for women and other underrepresented groups around the world to make their voices heard. But increasingly, those who share their opinions and beliefs about injustice online are often met with a series of comments meant to shame them for speaking up.

Consider the efforts made by feminists to open discussion about gender equality. After Emma Watson’s stunning speech at the United Nations promoting the ongoing He for She campaign, she was immediately met with sexual threats and told by anonymous users that naked photos of her would soon hit the net. Despite the revelation that the supposed leak was a hoax, this is still an instance of misogynistic bullying, and a threat we should take seriously.

Watson is still being used as an object to make a point. Every day, women are being abused and harassed online — using Watson as a bargaining chip isn’t going to change that.

We all live two lives: our physical one in the “real world,” and our digital one online. Those with a prejudice against women or others tend to use the latter to express their hateful views. Operating from behind a veil of secrecy, people are allowed to openly propagate ideas which would be met with harsh criticism in the real world.

Social justice requires accountability, but the nature of the internet makes it difficult to know from where and from whom regressive comments are coming. Because of this, we tend to shift the blame for online attacks onto the victims, which is a serious step backwards.

The relationship between the web and society is not as simple as we like to think. The internet has become a sort of modern Wild West — lawless and often dangerous. From behind their screens, trolls attack others with vulgar comments and threats of assault.

But these attacks are only part of the problem. Perhaps an even bigger issue is how our society has normalized these attacks, often writing them off as minor annoyances or simply an unavoidable part of the web. As the real world continues to progress in favour of equality, the digital one is becoming exceedingly weighed down by the regressive forces of online harassment.

As Laurie Penny, British journalist and feminist, put it: “An opinion, it seems, is the short skirt of the internet. Having one and flaunting it is somehow asking an amorphous mass of almost-entirely male keyboard-bashers to tell you how they’d like to rape, kill and urinate on you.”

Society continues to put the blame the women who experience online invasions of their privacy, instead of focusing on the aggressors. After the recent nude photo leaks, many countered that, if a woman doesn’t want naked pictures of herself on the internet, she shouldn’t have taken any to begin with.

This is classic victim-blaming, plain and simple. It’s no mistake that the leaked photos were of some of the most powerful and prominent women in our society — this invasion of privacy was an attempt to reaffirm patriarchal ideas of gendered power dynamics.

The anonymity of the internet makes it hard to identify where threats are coming from, and because of this, we put responsibility on women to protect themselves. This often translates to dissuading women from participating in online discourse, rather than looking to change the problem.

Allowing anonymity on the internet, however, comes with plenty of potential benefits, and threats to remove anonymous outlets on the web have met with backlash. We know that being able to browse and post anonymously protects an individual’s right to privacy. In an effort to track the few who are responsible for hate speech, we would likely punish the large majority of web users who don’t engage in these sorts of exchanges.

Ultimately, we will change people’s attitudes about online threats and hate speech by recognizing and condemning them when they appear, anonymously or not. Instead of focusing on the victim, we need to call out these attackers and make sure they know that their comments are damaging and unacceptable.

Mob mentality and the feeling that anonymity allows one to get away with anything is what fuels many to keep posting offensive remarks — if we are watching and calling them out, they may think twice.

Blaming victims and dismissing hate speech as “trolling” ignores the strides made by modern feminism, civil rights, gay rights, and other movements; and protects those who are making the internet a less safe place to be. We need to take these comments and threats seriously, just because they’re online doesn’t make them any less harmful or destructive.

I encourage all of you to think hard about the recent online shaming of women — if it had happened anywhere but on the web, would we be talking about it the same way? We need to focus on the real problem here; if we don’t, the internet will never become the safe and constructive environment that it’s meant to be.

Originally posted at The Peak. Re-posted with permission.


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