Left to their Own Devices: Gender, Cyberviolence, and the Internet

By Emma Louise Backe

In 1984, Donna Haraway published “A Cyborg Manifesto,” a proclamation problematizing contemporary concepts of universal womanhood and a singular global feminism. She instead proposed a vision of the future where technological advancement would create “post-gender” societies. The cyborg was centered as an irreverent figure who could destabilize the traditional boundaries of male and female, human and machine, through the revolutionary potential of emerging technological systems, like the burgeoning world wide web. By the early 90’s, a new wave of women’s rights activists calling themselves cyberfeminists took up Haraway’s appeal by exhorting the emancipatory possibilities of the Internet; perhaps this new digital domain could disrupt unequal power dynamics offline and provide new opportunities for feminist mobilization.

The utopian possibilities of the Internet, however, were quickly tempered by the recognition that sexual and gender-based discrimination were embedded in these very same information and communication technologies. In addition, men tended to dominate the tech sector, leading to what many have referred to as the “gender digital divide.” The Internet, it seems, was never neutral.

Haraway’s vision of digital post-gender possibilities hasn’t faded completely; the Internet is continually reshaped by its users, many of whom still hope to use the platform for a more just world both on and offline. But recent findings regarding the widespread misogyny entrenched in these systems leaves one asking: how can we understand instances of online abuse and update Haraway’s cyborgian vision of digital worlds in the 21st century?

Recent findings regarding the widespread misogyny entrenched in these systems leaves one asking: how can we understand instances of online abuse and update Haraway’s cyborgian vision of digital worlds in the 21st century?

While the expansion and globalization of Web 2.0 has allowed for the instantaneous dissemination of information and provided instrumental platforms for mobilizing feminist activity, it has not escaped the troubling effects of misogyny and sexism offline. The term cyberviolence came to international attention in 2015 when the United Nations published a highly controversial report on cyberviolence against women and girls alerting the global community to the global scale of online abuse. The report was released shortly after #GamerGate, in which several women involved in the video game industry were harassed, doxxed, and threatened online for criticizing the gaming community’s trenchant misogyny and sexualization of women. The UN report and its subsequent backlash represented a burgeoning critical awareness of the invisible yet widespread phenomenon of online harassment, cyber dating abuse, cyberbullying, cyberstalking, and revenge porn that women and girls disproportionately experience. This violence has largely been used to target women who employ the Internet to call out instances of discrimination, participate in political conversations, and further many of the causes first laid out by early cyberfeminists.

Although the term cyberviolence might summon science fictional images of Blade Runner or The Matrix, its effects and impacts are very real. A 2017 study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that four in ten Americans have experienced online harassment in their lifetime. This harassment can take a number of forms, including impersonation, hacking, trolling, surveillance and tracking, non-consensual pornography, and defamation, to name a few. While cyberviolence can be categorized into particular “types” of abuse enumerated above, the forms and functions of cyberviolence often overlap with one another. For example, during the aforementioned #GamerGate controversy of 2014, video game developers and critics bore the major brunt of the GamerGate ire. They experienced ongoing, overlapping forms of online abuse — threats that became so severe that they feared for their personal safety.

Yet, because the Internet isn’t seen as “real,” many victims of cyberviolence find their experiences are trivialized. They are told to simply disconnect their computers or turn off their cellphones. While first-wave cyberfeminist theory believed that the information revolution would transform the material, embodied experience of “wired women,” cyber violence is emblematic of the bugs in the system.  

One element of cyberfeminism’s proposition was the opportunity to escape experiences of exclusion based on identity (race, gender, sexuality, etc.) and instead reshape the politics of inclusion in cyberspace. However, even though men and women are both susceptible to cyberviolence victimization, women and girls are much more likely to experience sexualized and gendered abuse. Indeed, a recent study of online abuse by Amnesty International found that “women of colour, religious or ethnic minority women, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex women, women with disabilities, or non-binary individuals who do not conform to traditional gender norms of male and female, will often experience abuse that targets them in unique or compounded way.” The failed promise of disembodiment on the Internet, and the increased vulnerability of marginalized populations, has led cyberfeminists to reconsider the continuum between inequalities offline, and their replication online.

Cyber dating abuse, cyberstalking, sexual online harassment, and revenge porn similarly disproportionately impact women, young girls, and LGBTQ individuals. These acts of invasion and violation are not limited to the Internet. Individuals who experience cyberviolence are also likely to suffer other forms of gender-based violence at the hands of their perpetrators. Although the causes of cyberviolence and the motives of perpetrators are still under investigation, many scholars point to pervasive attitudes of sexism and misogyny in cyberspace, stipulating that the overlap between online and offline violence is emblematic of the same perils of patriarchal power that give rise to rape culture in the “real world.” The Internet does not exist separate from the material, economic, political, or ideological conditions it hopes to surpass or escape from.

While research suggests that cyberviolence is widespread, the platforms that make it possible are also being mobilized to fight it. New cyberviolence research is being conducted by institutes like the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative and the Women’s Media Center Speech Project. The legal groundwork for the prosecution of revenge porn is being laid by prosecutors like Carrie Goldberg. After her experience with #GamerGate, Zoe Quinn started Crash Override, a free resource on online abuse and crisis helpline for victims of cyberviolence. Movements like Take Back the Tech use digital tools to promote the contributions of women and girls in online journalism and ICT development. Meanwhile, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of freedom of expression, David Kaye, has called for improved digital protections to prevent against gendered cyberviolence. Sustainable Development Goal 5 was implemented to overcome the gender digital divide and ensure that women and girls throughout the Global South can participate in the STEM fields and contribute to the growing digital dialogue of development and international feminisms.

Yet, because the Internet isn’t seen as “real,” many victims of cyberviolence find their experiences are trivialized. They are told to simply disconnect their computers or turn off their cellphones. 

The confluence of ethical issues surrounding cyberviolence, cyberfeminism, and cyber security can perhaps best be seen through contemporary debates around Net Neutrality. In December of 2017, the United States’ Federal Communications Commission voted to end the 2015 Open Internet Order instituted under President Obama. The Open Internet Order ensures that internet service providers can’t slow down or block content to websites they are in competition or disagreed with, allowing independent blogs—services like Crash Override—the freedom to flourish. The potential expiration of Net Neutrality in the United States in June not only portends the foreclosure of many of the grassroots, community-based services created to support survivors of cyberviolence, but also represents an attack on feminism. Letters to the FCC in December emphasized the importance of “an open Internet so that we can organize and connect for political action and civic engagement; access vital news and information that is not available in the mainstream, corporate media, and ensure that women-led small businesses, creative endeavors, and innovations can flourish.” Without Net Neutrality, “women’s and girls’ voices online will be threatened and silenced.” Even though the multifarious Reddit threads and shadows of the dark net may have allowed for the manifestation of online violence, the Internet has also provided unprecedented access to information, platforms for marginalized voices and stories, and the means for sub-altern communities to operate safely even in conditions of structural violence.

With the ongoing fight over Net Neutrality in the United States, digital citizens are debating emergent forms of internet governance. Yet the transition also presents us with the opportunity to re-imagine an ideal internet, potentially even a feminist one. The Association for Progressive Communication initially met in 2014 to collaboratively devise a set of guiding principles for a feminist Internet. These feminist principles of the Internet, “work towards empowering more women and queer persons — in all our diversities — including age, disabilities, sexualities, gender identities and expressions, socioeconomic locations, political and religious beliefs, ethnic origins, and racial markers.” The propositions are invested in access to information and digital networks, celebrate alternative economies, and posit the internet as a space where norms can be negotiated and reconstituted. A feminist Internet should also elevate the involvement of women in cybersecurity.

The liberatory ideals of Haraway’s cyborg and early cyberfeminism remain prescient in the continued possibility of the Internet as an alternative stage for political argumentation and norm-setting. The internet need not simply be a digital continuation of “the real,” but instead provide the terrain by which we reshape the expectations and mores around conduct and communication.

Further Reading

EB Backe, Lilleston P, and McCleary-Sills J, “Networked Individuals, Gendered Violence: A Literature Review of Cyberviolence,” Violence and Gender, 2018.

DK Citron, Hate Crimes in Cyberspace (Harvard University Press, 2014).

GenderIT.Org: Feminist Reflections on Internet Policies

Emma Louise Backe is a PhD student at George Washington University, where she studies Medical Anthropology. In addition to her fieldwork on trauma, gender-based violence, and sexual and reproductive health, Emma also works as a consultant in international development and global health. In her spare time, Emma manages and writes for The Geek Anthropologist and serves as an advocate for survivors of sexual violence with Collective Action for Safe Spaces.

Lady Science is an independent magazine that focuses on the history of women and gender in science, technology, and medicine and provides an accessible and inclusive platform for writing about women on the web. For more articles, information on pitching, and to subscribe to our newsletter, visit ladyscience.com.