Action against 'hate speech' will do little for women's rights


OPINION:IN A year of revolutions and mass demonstrations facilitated by online communication, the liberating promise of the internet has found its most faithful messengers since the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley in a reinvigorated activist left. But online, as offline, some people are more equal than others and women, it seems, get a better deal in the stuffy old institutions of democracy than they do in the viciously sexist culture of the internet.

A debate about misogynist “trolling”, or online abusive comments, has spread. Fed up with receiving torrents of misogynist abuse, comments about their appearance and descriptions of violent rape fantasies, high-profile women journalists and bloggers have come together to mount a campaign of solidarity.

One of the dominant themes has been that action must be taken, such as increased forum moderation and restrictions on online anonymity. An equally common riposte has been that the women are self-pitying, that abuse is simply part of online debate that all writers face.

Sadly, what has begun to be unearthed here is quite specific to women, and not just women bloggers and journalists. A study by the University of Maryland’s school of engineering showed that chatroom participants using female names were 25 times more likely to receive threatening and/or sexually explicit private messages than those with male or gender-neutral names.

Facebook hosts pages called “Throwing bricks at sluts” and “Punching pregnant women in the stomach” that feminists have petitioned the social network to remove. The extent to which hardcore pornography has become mainstream online could not have been imagined by the anti-pornography feminists of the 1970s, and feminist websites and blogs are often hacked.

For example, this year on International Women’s Day, three separate “denial of service” hacks were carried out – against the International Women’s Day website itself. Popular internet expressions like “there are no girls on the internet” and “tits or GTFO” have emerged from chat rooms and online gaming communities, suggesting a certain knowingness about the widespread sexism of internet culture, even among its perpetrators.

However, by responding to this problem with demands for identity verification and comment moderation, the campaigners are in danger of stirring up a hornets’ nest. Since the early days of the public internet, hackers have battled to keep it free in every sense of the word, resisting both state spying and corporate takeover. As many hackers see it, anonymity is central to internet freedom, whereas those pushing the anti-anonymity agenda have been motivated by the prospect of raking in advertising profits. Until now at least.

The “nym wars” gained mainstream exposure this year when Google Plus revealed its controversial policy of making users use their real names to leverage personal information to build products. Facebook also rolled out a new commenting system, which guaranteed news sites less user anonymity and, consequently, less trolling. The system was designed to discourage incivility but it had the rather handy side-effect of expanding Facebook’s already imperial reach as the net’s primary identity validator.

Some of the women have called the verbal abuse they receive “hate speech”, a vague but unmistakably legalistic term, but the common view – on both sides of the debate – that feminist solutions need be censorious is mistaken.

Wendy Kaminer, a US-based feminist and free speech advocate who has fought censorship from within the feminist movement, says asking for legislation to protect women against hate speech online harms everyone’s rights, women included.

“Individual women who want to be heard have to find their own ways of dealing with it. Maybe with these campaigns they can get a sense of solidarity with other female bloggers. Great. But to ask the government to step in and protect you from the nasty things that people are going to say to you, you’re just going to end up limiting your own rights to speech,” she said.

Whether the campaigners’ use of the internet as a tool to address this problem can have any impact remains to be seen.

But if they choose to go down the road of seeking greater protection from verbal abuse using these methods, campaigners like Laurie Penny, who have spoken out about anonymous trolling against themselves but also celebrated hacker groups such as Anonymous, would be well advised to show solidarity with their equally trolled conservative sisters on this issue. After all, if they get on the wrong side of internet freedom-loving “hactivists”, they will need all the support they can get.

Angela Nagle is a writer and researcher, studying for a PhD on gender and internet cultures

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