“Like woman, software systems are used as man’s tools, his media and his weapons: all are developed in the interest of the man, but all are poised to betray him” – Sadie Plant
Bailey Poland, the author, addresses two main questions in this book: what is it about online spaces that makes abuse so common? What can we do to make the Internet safer?
Sexism can be defined as a combination of prejudice against persons based on their gender, combined with their privilege (a set of social advantages associated with particular axes of identity that are considered to be dominant) and power required to cause harm. Sexism occurs online, every day, and leads to a great number of women having to deal with cybersexism and cyberharassment.
Throughout this book, Poland aims to show that cybersexism can be costly for women’s lives and mental health. She gives a particularly interesting insight on cybersexism itself and what consequences can emerge from it. She highlighted that online abuse of women is largely underestimated and underreported. We also get an insight into the different forms of cybersexism and how online harassment takes place, including the ways in which men perpetrate offline sexism on an online platform.
First of all, Poland expounds that women are already at a disadvantage because of the strong male control of conversation online. Men do in fact write the majority of online articles and website contents. Social media and forums are the most casual places for harassment. Therefore, the internet itself reflects patterns of male domination and control. On most platforms, women’s opinions are dismissed and they are often interrupted by comments or aggressive messages showing male domination. Then, of course, there is the common method of trolling. A troll is a person who starts quarrels or arguments and upsets people on the internet by posting digressive, off-topic messages with the intent of provoking emotional responses. It’s a common tactic used to drive women away from positions of prominence and power. Furthermore, a lot of people use active and passive harassment: this can take many forms and it happens through social media with comments, pictures, memes, etc. Anonymity is also commonly used as a way to harass because it allows antisocial behaviour that would otherwise be unacceptable offline. Harassers often claim that because the opinions were expressed anonymously, these opinions are not to be believed. In other words, anonymity is used as a strategy to avoid accountability for what was expressed.
Online harassment and sexism is not only restricted to the internet. Online activities can come out in everyday, real life situations and affect people’s lives directly. For instance, the Men’s Rights Activists (MRA) started its life as a virtual group that prides itself in malicious and predatory online activities such as stalking and doxxing. A woman once found herself on a date with a member of the MRA in real life. She only found out about the fact halfway through the date and decided to end it. The man grabbed the woman by the arm and forced his hand under her shirt. She was forced to punch him and to escape, but thereafter she started receiving messages such as “why are you playing so hard to get?” and that called her a “bitch”, “slut”, and “tease”. This woman went on to write an online article to share her story, yet soon enough she started to receive aggressive comments that questioned the truth of her experience and insisted that she only experienced what she experienced because she resisted.
The physical effects of cybersexism have been proven to be destructive: it has caused severe mental health issues, eating disorders, and even suicide among female victims. On top of that, cyber harassment has also had detrimental effects to its victims’ social lives and careers. To make things worse, a majority number of people still don’t consider cyber harassment a serious issue. Most advice female victims get about dealing with cybersexism such as “just don’t feed the trolls” or “just block them” are hardly constructive especially when in reality, things are a lot more complicated. Women especially from minority and religious groups are more frequently targeted, yet they would receive the least support especially when the harassment is sexual in nature.
As cyber attacks are often instantaneous, Poland recommends that the best responses to the problem are those that are as immediate upon its occurrence. She therefore urged maximising the use of existing functions and embracing new technologies. This may include filtering and controlling contacts and comments, blocking and muting as well as increasing privacy settings. Increasing privacy settings enables people to control how much information can be accessed by their audience. All this however may take up time and energy; prevent women from communicating with the largest audience; and cause a loss of opportunities. Reporting cyber sexists should also be considered although it rarely offers satisfactory results and places a great burden on the women who chose to report. Reporting also poses a risk for women victims of cyber harassment as reports are more often not taken seriously and the abuse are often treated dismissively. Moderation of comments can also appear as a solution, and some people are even engaged specifically for this purpose in certain companies. However, it remains a difficult job as it exposes women moderators to attacks. Blackchannelling conversations and women networks are more and more frequently used but it does not solve the problem in itself.
All these methods can be efficient in limiting cybersexism and cyberharassment, however none of them go to the root of the problem. In my opinion, this is what’s missing in this book. Poland gives out some solutions but no real method to solve this problem. This could be a reminder of how complex and how hard it is for us to fight harassment, especially since many, including women, still think that it’s just something that “we naturally have to deal with”. But it seems to me that even if there are actions that we can take, they will not make a real difference unless brands start changing their policies, social media start changing their platforms, and parents start educating both their sons and daughters on dealing with the opposite gender better. At the end of the book, I feel quite powerless. I didn’t feel I was given many options that I could actually try to change things and make a difference as an individual in spite of now being aware of the issue at length.
The structure of the book is otherwise easy to follow. Poland begins by discussing cybersexism in general, then moves on to specific problems before finishing off with some solutions and ideas on what could be done. Her discussions are based on personal experiences as well as other people’s experiences. Even though each story is personal, Poland makes it easy for me to relate to all the women whose experience she shares in the book. She makes readers feel involved and attempts to make them aware of the serious changes that need to be made. As a woman who has never personally experienced online harassment, I was particularly affected by how frightening the experience can be for female victims. It is devastating to realize to what extent lives can be ruined by what some people consider only as a game and how much internet is taken for granted. Overall, I also appreciated the way Poland linked all the different information together in a simple way to understand why and how cybersexism and cyber harassment can occur. I believe this book would be a good first approach if you are new to this topic or if you have not had a chance to really reflect on it before. I would therefore encourage every man and woman to read it as to improve their awareness on this subject. This book highlights issues that most of us are not aware of if we have not otherwise personally experienced cybersexism and cyberharassment.
*If you’re interested to read or find a different view of this book, it is available in the General Collection of the newly improved PusatRakyatLB Resource Centre. Sign up as a member from 16 August 2018 and it’s yours to enjoy for a whole month ! For more information on the Resource Centre and all its flashy new features, check out the new Resource Centre page at www.mcchr.org.my.