The public sphere has always accommodated discrimination; we wouldn’t have debate without the occasional individual somewhere on the edges screaming their opinion. Most of us wish they weren’t there, but for the most part, we can drown them out with good intentions and healthy discussion.
But what happens when the voices that we try not to acknowledge get too loud?
Unfortunately this is what the Internet makes possible. There are many good intentions that surround internet use, such as the enabling of large-scale collective intelligence on Wikipedia, however, as with anything that increases the voices of the positivity, the voices of negativity are amplified. The Internet is granting a voice to serious discrimination that can cause debilitating mental effects upon victims.
The fact that the only way to seriously address discrimination on the Internet is to block discriminatory individuals on Twitter or Facebook, or delete comments made on blogs and articles, reveals a fundamental weakness in the Internet’s fabric. Anonymity is an assurance of the web; avoid Facebook, and you’ll almost never be held accountable for your actions. This prevalence of anonymity makes it almost impossible for those who are threatened, in the case of misogynistic practice, with rape, death, mutilation or other violence to stop these threats from reaching them altogether (1).
The reality of sexist abuse from the perspective of women can be understood through Helen Lewis’ 2011 article ‘“You should have your tongue ripped out”: the reality of sexist abuse online’, published on the New Statesman. The overwhelming sentiment is that though this abuse affects women on a very real level, there’s almost nothing that they can do about it; that the police are no help, and all that the women interviewed are able to do is block the ‘haters’. Clearly, there needs to be a change here, and publicly shaming individuals on sites such as The Anti Bogan and through the #mencallmethings hashtag alone wipe-out the deep seated hatred for women’s equality that creates the impression that some men are actually evolving backwards (it’s very important to note that these individuals are not like the majority of male internet users).
Maybe there is a way to ensure that we can turn down the volume of discrimination and nullify anonymity. In the case of reddit.com, material that is offensive can be silenced by voting the material down so that it disappears, and this kind of idea can potentially stop trolls from being heard. In other cases, where popular opinion cannot stop those who wish to frighten and threaten writers into submission, there should be better legislation to actually deal with the new problems that the convergence of media and technology present. Obviously there is no way to counteract all discrimination on the net, but an effective plan needs to be created for police to be able to properly persecute those who use the Internet as a mask for hate crime. We also need to self-regulate and help each other to shame trolls.
If we cannot find a way, less and less people, particularly women, will be willing to participate in blogging, social media, online journalism and generally, information technology, at the risk of threats of sexual and physical violence, and the participatory culture of the Internet will be compromised.
In the workplace, these threats may be less prevalent, but the fact remains that only 3.6% of the Fortune 500 are females, and something is keeping females out of the power game. That something is probably discrimination. And it has to stop. It’s not about feminism, it’s about human rights.
(1) Dreher, T 2012 #mencallmethings: Identity and Difference Online, lecture, BCM112, Convergent Media Practices, University of Wollongong, delivered 8th May.