Gender violence on the Internet: the cyber harassment seeking to silence women

In 2012, when YouTuber Anita Sarkeesian launched a funding campaign on Kickstarter (a funding platform for creative projects) for her series of videos on the portrayal of women in videogames, Tropes versus Women, she had no idea what lay ahead of her.

“Imagine every single place where you exist online being bombarded and descended upon with racist and sexist slurs, with photographs of your face photoshopped onto pornographic images,” says Sarkeesian in an interview on her website.

Two years later, #Gamergate emerged on Twitter, arguing that the debate about sexism and “progressive ideas” had ruined videogames. There was a surge in the attacks on Sarkeesian, on women gamers who publicly supported her, and women game developers, such as Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu.

“We were receiving death threats and rape threats. I had several bomb threats at various events that I spoke at,” adds Sarkeesian.

Mary Beard is not a technology expert. Her forte is the classical world. In 2013, this Cambridge professor appeared as a panellist on the BBC television programme Question Time. The debate, in which the then-UKIP party leader Nigel Farage also took part, turned to the issue of the United Kingdom’s place in the European Union and the need - or otherwise - for border controls to curb immigration.

Her intervention, taking apart UKIP’s argument that EU citizens abuse the British welfare system, led, in Beard’s words, to “internet trolling that I haven’t experienced before, and is worth thinking about” as it would be “enough to put many women off appearing in public”.


Silencing the voice of women

Under the heading Internet fury: or having your anatomy dissected online, Beard’s blog firmly denounced the harassment.

“My appearance on Question Time prompted a web post that has in the last few days discussed my pubic hair (do I brush the floor with it), whether I need rogering (that comment was taken down, as was the speculation about the capaciousness of my vagina, and the plan to plant a d*** in my mouth).”

This experience led the academic to reflect on “the ways women’s voices are not publicly heard in our own contemporary culture”.

What Beard, Sarkeesian and women with an online presence, such as feminist writer and YouTuber Lindy West, the Daily Beast journalist Olivia Nuzzi or blogger Anna Mayer, have suffered is what the UN calls “cyber violence against women and girls” (cyber VAWG). In the case of these women, the online harassment they face is heightened by their public profile.

There were signs that something was happening. Already in 2014, the BBC conducted a survey in 17 countries on how men and women accessed the Internet and their perception of it. One in two web users said they did not feel that it was a safe place for expressing their opinions.

Also in 2014, a study by the Pew Research Center on cyber harassment underlined the particular virulence of the online harassment targeting women aged between 18 and 25. A recent investigation by the antivirus company Norton in New Zealand also highlights the prevalence of this problem and its impact on the victims, who speak of feeling “helpless”, “abused” and “violated”.

The Karisma Foundation, based in Bogotá, Colombia, which focuses on technology, freedom of expression and gender equality, took part in an international study organised by the Web Foundation, to determine whether Internet access is empowering women. Its participation in this research uncovered signs of another phenomenon: “cyber misogyny”.

On looking into the situation in Colombia, “the findings of our research in Bogotá revealed a huge gap between men and women and cyber violence”, human rights expert and researcher for Karisma, Amalia Toledo, told Equal Times.

“This led us to conduct a second study into the experience of Colombian women journalists with high online visibility due to their work.

"The findings confirmed that women with a strong voice in the public sphere, women who question ideas and traditions, are exposed to virulent attacks, especially when talking about male chauvinism or women’s rights. The aim is to silence them, by attacking their personal relationships or their physical appearance, turning their bodies into a battlefield,” explains Toledo.

“The impact of what happens on the Web inhibits and limits these women’s freedom of expression. Many opt to use alter egos to talk about issues such as abortion or, in the worst cases, close all their accounts on social media and withdraw from the online world. The sad thing is that they see it as something normal in the Colombian context,” she adds.

“Online violence requires less time and effort than in the offline world and it has a multiplying and amplifying effect,” insists Toledo, highlighting one of the features attributed to the phenomenon by the UN – automation. Others include its anonymity, accessibility, action-at-a-distance, propagation and perpetuity – the texts and images multiply and exist for a long time or indefinitely. Furthermore, the nature of the Web means that not only can such violence be perpetrated by partners or ex-partners but also by complete strangers.

Toledo refers to the phenomenon as cyber misogyny. “The society we live in is machista and patriarchal, and the Internet reproduces this. This type of violence emerges when women want to express their opinion or question certain things on social media. We call it misogyny because, in many cases, this type of online violence reveals a sense of hatred for women.”


The Machitroll Alert

Taking inspiration from the Tumblr of Finnish researcher Saara Särmä – her famous All Men Panel with the face of a young David Hasselhoff highlighting panels, events or any type of gathering comprised exclusively of male experts – the Karisma Foundation created its own stamp that people can use to denounce male chauvinistic content on Internet: the Machitroll Alert.

“With his tool, a screen shot can be taken of public contents and each user can decide on its level of machismo: whether it is ‘reparable’ or ‘incurable”. We ask them what type of information led to the machitroll’s comment and why they have categorised it as reparable or incurable machismo. The idea is to make the web user reflect on the matter.”

The campaign, launched during the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence, has been turned into a permanent and very successful initiative in Latin America, especially in Argentina, Paraguay and Mexico, a country where, as Toledo points out, the level of “cyber misogyny is outrageous”.

In Paraguay, TEDIC is an NGO working on digital rights in the Southern Cone. It has recently added the gender dimension and is using the Machitroll Alert. “Although our focus is on building and occupying Internet with a gender perspective, we turned to the issue of cyber violence, which led to us to use Colombia’s #AlertaMachitroll hashtag on Twitter. It is a clear and fun term for the Web that can be understood in any Spanish speaking country and the fight can be fought together at regional level, since the situation is similar,” Mari Carmen Sequera, executive director of the NGO, tells Equal Times.

“For us, at TEDIC, the Machitroll Alert represents a campaign that is waged in the offline world and shifts to the online world, scrutinising human rights violations or inequalities, such as machismo, in the absence of public policies implemented by the state. That is to say, machismo is replicated on this infrastructure – Internet. Not only isn’t it being curbed, but it is gaining visibility at global level,” adds Sequera.

“In Paraguay, the discussions about gender and the feminist and LGBT movements are still in their early stages for many segments of the population. But the debate is there. There is a wave of discussion about this issue at local and regional level, which has a lot to do with the global trend, with film stars and artists voicing their positions and political spaces where parity is discussed. We are taking advantage of this development and are backing the #PorEllas campaign, aimed at promoting an equality bill to address the gender violence that also exists on Internet,” she remarks.


“The Web’s virality is utilised by male chauvinists, but by the feminist movement too”

Founded six years ago, the online Pikara Magazine offers “quality journalism with a gender perspective”, covering stories that rarely appear in the mainstream media. As one of its journalists, Andrea Momoitio, tells Equal Times, the magazine has become the focus of repeated attacks.

“The Forocoches case is paradigmatic. It is a fiercely macho forum, and they can’t stand us. Last year they planned to attack us en masse, to bring our servers down. We took a screenshot and ridiculed them...As for the comments, we respect the wishes of each writer at the magazine. In my case, I leave them open, but I don’t read them,” she confides.

For Momoitio, “The cyber element only refers to the space. It is the same male violence we suffer in every area of our lives. There may be some specific features to it, like anonymity, given that equality has been recognised – at least officially – and no one would openly behave like that on the street.”

The journalist is concerned that “our attention is being diverted and we risk forgetting about the everyday violence”.

As for the Web’s virality, Momoitio recognises that “it is utilised by male chauvinists, but by the feminist movement too”.

“We don’t have a clear position on trolls at Pikara Magazine. A troll is a person who likes to create controversy on the Web for the fun of it. But, are we talking about organised trolls or sexists?” asks Momoitio.

“If we want to put an end to this phenomenon, we need to highlight it and explain that it corresponds to a hetero-patriarchal structure that will do whatever it can to stop us from improving our lives. We have to relativise, but we can’t let it pass. Everything, moreover, is very much intertwined, especially the legislative part. We need women hackers. Internet continues to be a space controlled by men,” she concludes.


This article has been translated from Spanish.