Most of us (should) know that the net is not a particularly nice place. It is a neutral tool that allows all users to go out there and be themselves. Unfortunately the technology also offers people pseudo-anonymity or the illusion of real anonymity. I say unfortunately because this really brings the weirdos out of the woodwork. One of the most casual forms is the misogynist – but racism may be more common.
In an article on Women on the Web, Caitlin Fitzsimmons writes about the way in which men use technology to spread fear against women and approaches ways in which to deal with the issue. Many tend to think that the best approach is to ignore those who behave badly. This approach can be justified in different ways:
1. The simplest reason many ignore the problem is by claiming to be too tired/busy to react. This is usually connected to arguments that there are simply too many things to react to. So in general I agree with this argument except for the problem that too many people use this as an excuse all the time and react to nothing. If you cannot fight against everything then at least pick one injustice and fight against that!
2. Social shunning as punishment. In real life when someone behaves badly we often do not tell them or make a big fuss. Often it is enough to ignore what has happened, in particular if we ignore it visibly. We can, for example, create an embarrassing silence. This is the social equivalent of banishment and the socially aware individual recognizes that boundaries have been crossed and will adjust his/her behavior in the future. The problem with attempting this online is that the offender must feel the need to belong to the group for this to work. Also embarrassing silences only work when the whole social group falls unnaturally silent. This does not work online.
3. The third approach is the concept of the marketplace of ideas. This basically means that it is actually good for the weirdo’s to get out in the open and test their ideas since this will only encourage the opposition to develop better arguments and convince the weirdo’s that they are wrong. In an offline world this may work in theory in an open debate but it is hardly likely to work in practice. In an online environment this approach is misguided. It also gives the weirdo’s way too much leeway and opportunity to cause pain to others.
The question is then how to tackle the problem. The panellists agreed that while there was no point in engaging directly with hateful comments, ignoring them was not really a viable option. Feministing.com’s Valenti said online misogyny was different to offline abuse in two key respects. “Unlike someone coming up to you on the street, it can be really hard to assess what kind of danger you’re in,” she added. “You don’t know if it’s a 15 year-old in Idaho spouting off or a really scary guy who really is likely to come around and rape you.”
The online/offline worlds are different and attempting to apply theoretical approaches to handling uncomfortable/threatening/harmful situations in the online world may only cause more harm. No I do not have a solution but I really like the way in which blogs like Feministing are using technology to reach new readers – or actually viewers since Feministing uses YouTube videos (check out their channel here).