The Internet is a dangerous and hostile environment whereby ambitious, successful and outspoken high-profile women have become targets of mass trolling, hate speech and serious threats and abuse by anonymous attackers. While the first logical solution is to leave these social networking sites, it is unreasonable to banish and exclude women from the centre of modern-day life, particularly given the importance of an active social media presence to most professions.
At the same time, however, it is also unjust to argue that trolling online is exclusively directed towards women. For example, West Tigers rugby league captain Robbie Farah was the target of vicious online trolls in 2012, with some abusive, sexually explicit comments referring to his late mother. It is interesting that Farah called on Prime Minster Julia Gillard to tighten social media laws and crack down on trolling, when he himself was engaged in such offensive behaviour.
In 2011, in response to the question of what to buy Gillard for her birthday, Farah’s tweeted response was “a noose”. Later that day, Farah also tweeted “Some people on twitter obviously can’t take a joke. Lighten up people”, as well as “no one said anything about suicide”. This reflects a culture in which abusive or vile, sexist, racist or homophobic remarks are excused and condoned on the grounds of irony, with those who take offence being regarded as oversensitive.
Such instances of cyber-assault are systematic of a culture of violent abuse against women that, up until now, has happened behind closed doors. While equally as obscene, cyber-bullying is visible for all to see and can no longer be shrugged off.
While Farah has since been heavily involved in encouraging action to be taken against “keyboard warriors”, the fact that it took being a victim of such distasteful behaviour to fully understand its implications reflects another problem society is facing. There seems to be limited understanding by law enforcement agencies, popular commentators and the technology companies that actually host these threats, of the torrents of abuse famous female figures are being subjected to. Interestingly, these are all arenas dominated by men who, unlike women, are not disproportionately subjected to a high level of abuse that is based almost entirely on sex.
Identity-based discrimination is no longer occurring on the fringes of the cyber sphere. There is an important difference between awareness and understanding, and the people, companies and institutions in positions of power and authority need to summon a deeper appreciation for the severity of the issue rather than waiting until it happens to themselves before making a stand. Perhaps it’s time for us to take a walk in her shoes.