Under the banner of free speech, companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have been host to rape videos and revenge porn—which makes female users feel anything but free.
“All of this raised a series of troubling questions: Who’s proliferating this violent content? Who’s controlling its dissemination? Should someone be? In theory, social media companies are neutral platforms where users generate content and report content as equals. But, as in the physical world, some users are more equal than others. In other words, social media is more symptom than disease: A 2013 report from the World Health Organization called violence against women “a global health problem of epidemic proportion,” from domestic abuse, stalking, and street harassment to sex trafficking, rape, and murder. This epidemic is thriving in the petri dish of social media.
While some of the aggression against women online occurs between people who know one another, and is unquestionably illegal, most of it happens between strangers. Earlier this year, Pacific Standard published a long story by Amanda Hess about an online stalker who set up a Twitter account specifically to send her death threats.
Under the image, someone commented, “Women are like grass, they need to be beaten/cut regularly.”
Across websites and social media platforms, everyday sexist comments exist along a spectrum that also includes illicit sexual surveillance, “creepshots,” extortion, doxxing, stalking, malicious impersonation, threats, and rape videos and photographs. The explosive use of the Internet to conduct human trafficking also has a place on this spectrum, given that three-quarters of trafficked people are girls and women.
A report, “Misogyny on Twitter,” released by the research and policy organization Demos this June, found more than 6 million instances of the word “slut” or “whore” used in English on Twitter between December 26, 2013, and February 9, 2014. (The words “bitch” and “cunt” were not measured.) An estimated 20 percent of the misogyny study Tweets appeared, to researchers, to be threatening. An example: “@XXX @XXX You stupid ugly fucking slut I’ll go to your flat and cut your fucking head off you inbred whore.”
A second Demos study showed that while male celebrities, female journalists, and male politicians face the highest likelihood of online hostility, women are significantly more likely to be targeted specifically because of their gender, and men are overwhelmingly those doing the harassing. For women of color, or members of the LGBT community, the harassment is amplified. “In my five years on Twitter, I’ve been called ‘nigger’ so many times that it barely registers as an insult anymore,” explains attorney and legal analyst Imani Gandy. “Let’s just say that my ‘nigger cunt’ cup runneth over.”