Feb 8th, 2020, 01:26 PM

A Little Birdy Told Me...

By Karl Baldacchino
Image Credit: Slate
Women in Politics Targeted Online

This author is a firm believer in the influence that women can contribute to the results of political deliberation, and have a lot to add in terms of political leadership in the current chaotic world that we live in. A recent Foreign Affairs article written by J. Bigio and R. Vogelstein briefly outlines the way that women’s activism has moved from the streets to the ballot box as more women have begun to climb onto the stage of local, regional and government elections. Their article also shows that this shift has led to a global 24% share of Parliament seats, meaning a twofold increase in terms of women’s representation in politics over the last two decades. It is true that such numbers, or quotas as some controversially see them, has not led to an equilibrium between men and women in these same seats, but there is no denying that without women having their rights recognized in such positions, society would be a lot more different.

However, with women going from the streets of demonstration to the ballot box, so have other things shifted in terms of the political mobilization that those running for political positions utilize, and, due to this, the persecution and backlash that they experience for showing their face. It seems like a natural progression that women have moved from defending and voicing their rights in books, petitions and strength in numbers, to using social media to reach out to others to follow their lead and back leading women so that all women can achieve equitable rights and accessible opportunities. Except this has come at the cost that social media has allowed for the troll armies, mainly male dominated, to counter the movement of women evermore into “male-dominated” territory. An interesting online article by Slate surveyed many journalists and academics about what the main tech companies they see are ‘evil’, in the sense that there is and/or has been malicious activity in the sphere of digital and privacy rights. The reason I mention this is because Twitter also made the top-30 ‘Evil List’ at #8. It has that position because as a large social media platform, with little regulatory restrictions on account creation and content sharing, it has become festered with users who harass and spread misinformation about women in politics.

India is the primary state within which this problem is most prevalent and visible, although this is a global issue from the U.S., to Brazil, to Tunisia, and even the U.K. The way women politicians, and also female journalists, are subjected to online abuse is brutal, going down the same path as many other women across the world. Men on Twitter would stop at nothing to tarnish, threaten, sexualize, and, very tragically, murder women who are standing up for themselves and for others. Amnesty International India discovered that from a surveyed sample of 95 women politicians in India, 13.8% of the tweets targeting them where either abusive or problematic in nature. This percentage is broken down as follows: ‘[t]his amounted to 1 million problematic or abusive mentions of the 95 women between March and May 2019, or over 10,000 problematic or abusive tweets every day across all women in the sample, or 113 per woman per day.’ Beyond this, deep fake technology has been used to create disturbing, fake pornographic images and/or videos with their face imprinted on someone else’s body to increase the rancor of domestic twitter audiences, intensifying the racial, religious and gendered slurs against women on Twitter. Ultimately some have backed away, others have taken their own life, and some have had their lives taken away from them.

In my opinion, freedom of speech is a dear freedom to most of us who can utilize it; but this is not freedom of speech when threats and insults are carried out on Twitter with the underlying intention to intimidate women politicians to back away from the sphere of politics that has been so long dominated by men. Women have entered politics with the right intentions to use political power to bring about good to those that they represent, such as how in India women politicians have pushed for a focus on child immunization, education and clean drinking water in rural areas. They have not entered, as the male psyche may assume, to ‘steal’ or ‘push out’ men from this sphere. Politics requires a balanced discussion as any discussion concerning society requires a balance of various views. It has also been the case that the obligations and commitments that Governments have ‘voluntarily’ signed up for are not held accountable, and neither is the responsibility being pressured upon social media giants like Twitter having any desired results. In its response to Amnesty’s questions on the surveyed results Twitter merely said ‘building a Twitter free of abuse, spam and other behaviors that distract from the public conversation is one of their top priorities. It has made strides in creating a healthier service and continues to further invest in proactive technology to positively and directly impact people’s experience on the service.

So, in other words, a Pontius-like response of washing its hands from what abusive users online have done. If women politicians’ so-called ‘experience on the service’ online is leading to them backing down from making their own ‘strides’ publicly, or leading to them scarred from fake videos and images that they could not have imagined, or sadly murdered, then responsibility is not being claimed and women are left to the grinding teeth of male backlash.

I am very aware that as I say all of this, I am a man. That is my privilege and I recognize that. But I am here not as a man writing to you as male or female readers. I write here to call upon us as equal human beings and not as genders. I invoke the humanity within us to be aware of what is happening online at a rapid pace and to come to the defense of those seeking to stand up for us as human beings and for our human rights collectively. We need to keep our Governments in check on what they say and do when they commit themselves to principles of protection without discrimination; we also need to continue pressuring social media overlords to get off their thrones and start making the changes they are stating to have applied. No longer ought our internal initiative be hindered by the fear of voicing our voices.

Given the recent AUP elections that have just passed, it is heartening to see on a domestic, private level how many female students, undergraduates and graduates, have taken up the initiative to represent their fellow students, such as Renee Walton, Sarah Moussi, Lauren McDonald, Nike Hartman, Margarita Valldejuly, and many others. We should all show them support for the leadership and initiative that they have taken and show our support to all those women running for political positions across the world.