Social Networks: The Good, The Bad and The Horrifying

What was your most astonishing experience on a social network?
In our early days, someone flagged up sexist comment which we tweeted out only to then find ourselves under attack from the tweeter concerned (now we pre-emptively block anyone we tweet or blog about whose behaviour is sexist and misogynistic). This resulted in us being deluged with abuse from said sexist tweeter and a number of his supporters, including being sent pornographic material (of an illegal nature here in the UK as it featured bestiality). The original tweeter also developed somewhat of an obsession with us: sending us emails and leaving regular hostile comments on our blog. In the end we had to switch our blog platform and block his IP addresses to evade him.

In this light of this, we did some digging into his name only to discover a site with a record of a child sexual offence conviction in his name. This discovery was deeply perturbing, to say the least. It did however confirm our suspicion that on line misogynous behaviour tends to reflect off line behaviour. The internet does not transform seemingly non-violent men who respect women into violent misogynists, as some people would have us believe. Rather it just offers them a soapbox and the possibility to encounter like-minded individuals. Other accounts we have come across serve to underline this conclusion: like the ones which exist to circulate images of the sexual abuse of girls; or those which exclusively target certain individual women or groups of women (women of colour and Muslim women, to cite the two most recent examples we have seen).

The most surprising aspect of the whole episode was the original tweeter made repeated allegations that we were libelling him and making him “look bad”. He made these claims despite the fact we made no comment on him or his actions, only re-posted his tweets via Twitter and on our blog. It appeared he could see that his behaviour was utterly unacceptable; but he was unwilling to recognise that this was his responsibility. Instead he blamed us. This selective moral blindness has been repeated many times with other abusive tweeters we have encountered. Again, this has reminded us of how abusive men behave off line.

How do you think the rights of women and girls worldwide are enhanced by social networks?
Social networks are an important campaigning tool for women’s and girls’ rights. In Mexico, where one of our volunteers lives, for example, there have been a number of successful on-line campaigns in favour of women who have been wrongly imprisoned, usually for miscarrying but sometimes for other crimes. While it is unlikely that campaigns conducted solely through social media would be effective, it is very clear that traditional campaigns are much aided by an e-petition and social media exposure. At the moment there is a campaign to support a young rape victim in Mexico City, who fought of her attackers and killed one of them with his knife. She has been imprisoned and is facing charges of murder. The second rapist is not. The campaign seeks her immediate release. During the Christmas period, campaigners also encouraged their followers to write short letters of support to the woman in order that she might know that she isn’t alone and that people are thinking of her. Before social media, her father (who initiated the campaign) would have been most likely unable to interest the national press in featuring his daughter’s story. The noise generated via Twitter and Facebook, plus the existence of an e petition calling for her release, has prompted several papers to take an interest (although not always from a very sympathetic point of view).

However, we think that social media sites can also be a two edged sword as far as women’s rights are concerned. Another recent story from Mexico illustrates my point. On 5 October 2013 a Mazateco indigenous women in the late stages of labour was refused treatment at her local public hospital. As a result, she gave birth outside the hospital. The birth was captured on a mobile phone camera and the photo was soon widely disseminated via Facebook and Twitter. The story was then picked up by the national press, one of which included the picture of the birth as well as the full name of the woman and her place of origin. The distribution of the image made Mexico’s insufficient medical provision, its woeful maternal mortality statistics and its racist treatment of its indigenous population a front page story. It also led to other such stories coming to light. Health authorities have promised to implement changes in order that this situation is not repeated. All of this is good news. But, the woman concerned has been subject to a gross invasion of privacy. Her picture –in the moment of giving birth- is recorded on the internet; her full name and other identifying details are still also available on the newspaper’s website. I have not linked to them for this reason. How these images might affect her and her child in the future remains to be seen. But I would suggest that they are mostly likely to be the cause of future harassment and discrimination.

What do you think social networks sites can do to be more friendly—and safe—for women and girls?
We think perhaps sites should consult with their users –most especially those who have experienced abuse or harassment on their sites in order to discover this question for themselves. We do think, however, that sites should make their moderation policies open and transparent. By which We mean, if you examine how Facebook –for example– has a policy which states that pictures of breastfeeding women are offensive, but pictures of women being assaulted are not, it should make sure that those people using it are aware of this policy. Any examination of how Facebook moderates such photos shows that this is their policy, however for some reason the site does not publicly admit to it. Similarly, if moderators on Tumblr or Twitter or are not going to remove death and rape threats made to women and girls, if they are going to class misogynous and racist slurs as “jokes”, it would only be fair and transparent for sites to make their clients aware of this policy. This way we could make an informed choice about whether we wished to sign up or not.

What do you think social networks owners should do to ensure safety on their sites?
We would recommend reading this text from a series of very thoughtful posts by Nancy Leong on the subject of internet harassment. For my part, I think that social networks have got to accept that providing a good moderation service is not an optional extra, or something to be done on the cheap, but an important part of providing a platform on social media. Studies in the US show that women outnumber men on social media, so it is reasonable to expect that the owners of these platforms investigate how to best protect its users and implement strategies accordingly.

What is your vision of how social networks could shape our world?
Our experiences teach us that social networks are not unprecedented social spaces nor are its users fundamentally distinct or separated from off line cultures and societies. On line behaviour fundamentally reflects off line behaviour and the misogyny which we see and highlight every day is as prevalent in our face-to-face relations as those we have on-line (as the work of the Every Day Sexism project illustrates so well). If anything, social media is simply a platform which amplifies and records the daily instances of misogyny faced by women.

As a result, it is entirely possible that social networks will continue to make the world a less welcoming place for women. Initiatives like those of Google to allow people to search email addresses with a simple name search, or face recognition technology, will continue to erode privacy and provide ample tools for the harassment of women. Phenomena like “revenge porn” websites will proliferate as will instances of the recording and circulation of rape and abuse against women.

On the other hand, social networks also offer women the tools to work together to fight in favour of a more women friendly world. Social media has the potential to offer a platform to diverse women’s voices and allow them to forged alliances which cross continents, cultures and religion. This is our hope for the future and the principal reason we started EOM.

This article was originally posted on The Social Network Station in 2014.

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