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Misogyny and the Internet: for better or worse?

Michelle Avenant's picture

Die-hard internet enthusiasts would hail blogging and social media for empowering the feminist movement by “giving a voice to the voiceless”. Sceptics remind us, though, that the same set of online tools make misogyny easier than ever before.

A recent article in The Guardian provides thought-provoking insight from five feminist writers into both sides of the debate. Here are the points I found most interesting (although I would definitely recommend reading the whole article):

“A sexist world is no less sexist for being partly online”, says Nina Power. In other words, whilst the internet provides new platforms for feminist voices, many of our online interactions still reflect the profound sexism present in our society.
“The internet has enabled men to change the terms of engagement”, says Beatrix Campbell. What was once “sequestered dirty talk” restricted to predominantly male spaces like pubs, is now "a kind of public discourse", she explains, aired to a multi-gendered and potentially global audience. 
“In the past, abusing women you didn’t know required effort”, says Joan Smith. Today, someone can leave abusive comments and threats of sexual violence on blogs, social media, or even a celebrity’s twitter feed, without even getting out of bed.
Anonymity makes it easier too, adds Lola Okolosie. Unlike the man harassing a woman in the street, the online harasser does not have to deal with the social ramifications of having their offences linked to their persona.

“At least now the toxic matter is rising to the surface for all to see”, says Bidisha. She elaborates that the new visibility of misogyny online gives gender activists something to attack: nobody can deny misogyny's presence now (at least not without a very thick blindfold).
The internet provides enormous awareness, recognition and insight into sexism, says Power. “I'm sure that people who grow up with the internet from a very young age are far more aware of what sexism is."
“Through our global conversation we are establishing solidarity”, Bidisha adds. Thanks to social networking, it is now easier than ever to form a cohesive feminist community across geographical borders.
“Before, we didn’t necessarily know what was in the misogynist head. Now we do”, concludes Campbell. Just as feminist online media provides insight into women’s experience of misogyny, fearless misogynist comments online present us with a new level of insight into misogynist cognitive processes.

Tentative Optimism
Both sides of the argument hold fast, but there is reason, I think, to be more optimistic than pessimistic.

The internet has provided misogynists with a multitude of new platforms on which to exact their cruelty more easily than ever before. But it is this cruelty that can be used – painfully, bitterly, but nonetheless craftily – to feminists’ advantage: as primary evidence of misogyny for those who dismiss and deny it; as a common enemy around which to rally a global community; and as a library of diverse, visceral material to analyse in order to more acutely understand and address the misogynist consciousness.