International Women's Day: we must fight online misogyny

For some men, the internet has provided a free-fire zone to target female politicians and campaigners with a wave of hate

The ubiquity of the internet, and social media in particular, play an outsize role when it comes to fuelling reactionary positions on women’s and girls’ rights. Photo: Thomas Lefebvre / Unsplash
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Yesterday’s statement by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres that gender equality is 300 years away is a chilling one. That half of the human race may have to struggle for another three centuries for their full rights is a damning indictment.

But aside from the highly visible and egregious examples of women’s rights to education and work being denied – such as in Afghanistan – there is a dangerous rise in online misogyny that often plays out in the real world.

In an Ipsos survey of more than 22,000 people in 32 nations released just before International Women’s Day today, 54 per cent of respondents said women’s rights had gone far enough in their country. Almost half of those who took part – 48 per cent – said things had gone so far in promoting women’s equality that “men are being discriminated against”.

Such views do not come from nowhere, and although other factors are important – the media, education policies and societal attitudes generally – the ubiquity of the internet, and social media in particular, plays an outsized role when it comes to fuelling reactionary positions on women’s and girls’ rights.

For some misogynistic men, the internet has provided an online free-fire zone when it comes to the desire to shock. Andrew Tate, the American-British kickboxer-turned-influencer, is one such online provocateur. Mr Tate was eventually barred from various social media sites for expressing misogynistic views and hate speech, and is now detained in Romania on charges that include trafficking women. Nevertheless, many of his videos remain online, with young men re-sharing them with titles such as “Andrew Tate saved my life” and “The key to unlocking your potential revealed”.

But it is not just the unpleasantness of online misogyny that is alarming. The weaponisation of hate against women, particularly those who are politically active or in the media, has reached such a point that a report released last month referred to it as a national security threat.

In Monetising Misogyny, a study published by the NGO #ShePersisted, author and women's rights advocate Lucina Di Meco found that for most of the women interviewed for her project, “the most vicious online attacks occurred when they were working to protect and advance women’s rights and human rights, particularly those of refugees, immigrants and ethnic, religious or sexual minorities, or when denouncing government corruption”.

Such attacks were also aimed at their families, “with rape threats against their young children becoming an ever more common and deeply disturbing phenomenon”.

Suggesting that gendered disinformation be regarded as “an early warning system”, Ms Di Meco wrote that when such “backsliding on women’s rights and the erosion of democratic principles and institutions … is carried out by foreign malign actors to exploit divisions in society, it’s also a significant national security threat”.

The bogus victimhood and so-called motivational self-help being peddled online to men – young men in particular – by the opportunistic, the deranged and those with darker political motives must be challenged. Educators have an important role in fighting these toxic narratives before they take root, but internet culture is a fast-moving and fluid space that will require contributions from every part of society, including government and tech companies, to isolate and marginalise voices pushing hate and disrespect towards women.

Any complacency about women’s rights – essentially, human rights – should be well and truly buried by Mr Guterres’s stark comments. Progress is always reversible and, if we are not vigilant, the pendulum can swing back to reaction very quickly.

International Women’s Day should be one of celebration and recognising achievement, but until we confront the digital abyss of online misogyny, the UN’s estimate of 300 years could prove to be a conservative one.

Published: March 08, 2023, 3:00 AM