U.S. and international legislators recounted their personal experiences and demanded action during an IDDP forum on online hate against women.
By Ruth Steinhardt
Social media platforms must do more to protect women from the online attacks that too often end their public service careers, lawmakers said Thursday at a virtual forum on online misogyny hosted by the George Washington University’s Institute for Data, Democracy & Politics (IDDP).
“As women in politics, we take these slings and arrows as part of life, but what we probably haven’t spent any time reflecting on is how it permeates everything and how it deters a lot of women from engaging in the process,” said U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), whose district houses the headquarters of both Facebook and YouTube.
The problem is compounded for women of color, who are targeted for their race as well as their gender, said Arisa Hatch, vice president of racial justice organization Color of Change. Studies suggest that women are 27 times more likely to be victims of online violence than men, and one study suggests that Black women are 84 percent more likely to receive abusive Tweets than white women in equivalent positions.
Ms. Hatch said the epidemic of misogyny on Facebook is particularly galling in light of executive Sheryl Sandberg’s claims to feminism.
“You can’t just keep telling women to ‘lean in’ in the face of violent, derogatory and dehumanizing speech,” Ms. Hatch said. “How many potential women candidates are unwilling to persist through these types of harms?”
Accordingly, Ms. Speier announced, she and 100 other U.S. and international lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), have signed a letter to Facebook executives demanding the platform take serious action to address online hate and violence against women.
“Social media has to be able to control [online misogyny] to a degree—not to step on freedom of speech, but to put some parameters on what can be said and how it can be said,” said Christine Todd Whitman, former Republican governor of New Jersey and president of the Whitman Strategy Group.
Besides Ms. Hatch, Ms. Speier and Ms. Todd Whitman, participants in Thursday’s forum also included Seyi Akiwowo, founder and executive director of Glitch and former East London city councilor; Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.); and Renate Künast, member of the German Bundestag. IDDP Director Rebekah Tromble, an associate professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs, moderated the discussion.
Ms. Künast said she and other European lawmakers are “fed up” with Twitter and Facebook, whose models may actually incentivize inflammatory speech against women.
“It’s their strategy that they allow, especially Facebook, right-wing extremism and antifeminism to organize on their social media, and they are earning a lot of money with it,” she said.
Several participants, including Ms. Speier and Ms. Baldwin, said they no longer read the comment on their own social media and rely on their staff to filter out particularly noxious content. Ms. Speier, who survived after being shot five times by associates of Jim Jones just hours before the cult leader massacred his followers in 1978, said she’s been told she should have been “finished off at Jonestown” and that “she has a red dot on her forehead and so does her family.” During her campaign against Marines United, a Facebook group that posted nonconsensual pornographic photos of female Marines, credible threats drove Ms. Speier and her family out of their home for days.
Ms. Baldwin, the first openly gay politician elected to the Senate, said she avoids reading comments “as a matter of mental health.” But as with race, she said, an LGBTQ+ identity makes women even more vulnerable to attack. And while she and other politicians have support systems and communications teams to shield them from some of the online ugliness, most women have no such protection. Ms. Baldwin said she’d spoken to a young Black politician in her state who has received threats against herself and her family which she lacks the resources to ignore.
“We’ve got to take more action, and we’ve got to insist that social media platforms take more action,” Ms. Baldwin said. “We also have to reexamine decades-old policies that are currently governing these social media platforms and give them wide immunity to not be held accountable for, and not moderate, the content they allow to be posted.”
Ms. Akiwowo agreed that outdated norms contribute to online abuse, and that it is necessary to educate people to see themselves as good citizens online in the same way they do in the world. She said the COVID-19 pandemic also has required many women to spend increased time on the internet, which has removed some of the mental and emotional boundaries that keep online hate from spilling into women’s home lives.
“When we knew we were having a lockdown and imposing the workplace on people’s gardens and living rooms and kitchen tables, we had no mechanisms or framework to support that transition—to provide guidance to employers around how they support their employees,” she said. “We ask for there to be an investment in digital citizenship education, because we have to start establishing new norms of behavior and cultures around the online space.”
As a symptom, participants agreed that the woman Joe Biden chooses as his running mate will face an onslaught of anonymous hate and the best remedy will be a robust support system from other women in public life.
“She is going to be given one of the highest opportunities that any woman can have, and she has got—it’s unfortunate but true, and women have had to do this forever—she’s got to rise above it,” Ms. Todd Whitman said. “This is going to be brutal.”