The online hatred against women has to stop. But how?
'Women have very little idea how much men hate them'
by Stella O'Malley, The Independent, October 11 2020
It seems like Germaine Greer was right when it comes to anonymous online platforms, writes Stella O'Malley
We've had #MeToo and #TimesUp, we've even had #MenCallMeThings - and yet online misogyny continues to grow despite the fact that we all seem to hate it.
In the online world, it feels like the truth is not important; what is important is the cleverly worded burn and the prize is likes, shares and retweets.
Some people thought that the death of TV presenter Caroline Flack earlier this year was a line in the sand, while for others the recent hashtag #RIPJKRowling was the nadir of online misogyny, but no matter how dark the hashtag, how tragic the event, nothing seems to stop the hate.
When it turned out that, yet again, the claims of transphobia aimed at JK Rowling were unfounded (one sentence in a 900-page book referring to how a man used a woman's coat and a wig does not suggest transphobia), I decided to co-write a letter to the Sunday Times to highlight the online abuse she and other women were suffering, and invited famous writers to sign it.
Soon, 58 celebrities had done so, among them Ian McEwan, Tom Stoppard and Lionel Shriver. We turned the letter into an online petition. Less than two weeks later, 18,000 people have put their name to it - among them John Cleese, Barry Humphries and Sir Tony Robinson.
Clearly many people find the nasty, dark trolling of women distasteful - so why does it continue? And why do females suffer far more online abuse than their male counterparts?
One such example is Ciara Kelly, a responsible broadcaster (and Sunday Independent columnist) with considered, reasonable views, who is often annihilated when she comments on Twitter.
No matter what she says, no matter how innocuous, her tweets are pounced on by self-righteous trolls who know they will gather more fame if they are "appalled" by her comments.
The problem is that Twitter might feel like a cosy bitchfest - but it isn't. It is a public platform and people suffer as a result of the harsh comments.
When asked how trolling impacts her, Kelly told me: "You feel physically sick when you see people writing awful things about you. I have lain in bed when I could hardly sleep or eat."
Other Irish broadcasters with similar (or more controversial) views don't get anything like this abuse. So what is it about high-profile women that unleashes our dark side?
It is perhaps easy enough to understand why certain men abuse women. Some people have an intense desire to maintain power and control over others and men can use their greater body strength when more civilised methods don't work.
But in the online world, where no one can physically overpower others, why is so much of the online misogyny centred upon sexual violence?
Dr Emma Jane, academic researcher and author of Misogyny Online: A Short (and Brutish) History, describes the sexually violent nature of online misogyny as "rapeglish" - an online dialect characterised by graphic and sexually violent imagery.
Women are abused online in an attempt to silence them and thereby reduce and control them.
Online abuse might appear different from real life rape or sexual assault, but it is rooted within the same motivation - to overpower and dominate.
A significant factor associated with sex-based violence is adherence to strict gender norms.
People who have rigid ideas about what it is to be a man or a woman tend to perceive successful women as stepping out of line and seek to reassert male power and dominance with sexually abusive language. (Of course, it is not only men who pile on women - women also pile on other women.)
Anonymity means that people can let their dark side run free without fear of reprisal. We put forward saccharine-sweet versions of ourselves on identifiable platforms such as Facebook and Instagram - then, in the more anonymous platforms of Twitter and Reddit, a darker, nastier side is let loose. It's like Facebook is Dr Jekyll and Twitter is Mr Hyde.
Most of us thought Germaine Greer was overwrought when she warned us, "Women have very little idea of how much men hate them." And yet now, with the arrival of anonymous online platforms, it looks like she hit the nail on the head.
It's a difficult concept to hold and this is why so many of us rush to proclaim "Not all men" (so much so that this has its own acronym, "NAMALT" - Not All Men Are Like That).
Yet look at the dismissal of women over the centuries and it suddenly feels disingenuous to deny that an undercurrent of misogyny runs deep.
Most people aren't really aware that they are part of a pile-on. They think they are "just being funny" or that the target "needs to be told".
The thrill of the hunt releases adrenaline. The target is dehumanised and anyone who is perceived to be annoyingly successful is ripped apart.
Spiteful remarks are gleefully repeated and people think they are positively Wildean with their clever ripostes. It's hard to figure out whether it is getting worse.
Online abuse is certainly growing and online misogyny goes hand in hand with that. Some brave women manage to face it down, but it is depressing and it serves as a silencer as many women choose to shine less brightly as they know their success will create more negativity than they can handle.
A recent NUI Galway study found that online abuse of women in politics is on the rise. Tom Felle, head of journalism at the university, remarked that "social media has become a den of misogyny, a cesspit of trolls, where many female public representatives are abused and bullied regularly". It is notable that many women seem to enter politics but also leave politics.
The hours and the abuse both make it a difficult career for a woman.
JK Rowling has consistently lived a good and decent life, she is a philanthropist who founded a charity for vulnerable children; Ciara Kelly was a GP and is now a broadcaster who is transparent about her fair-minded views.
These women are not villains in life, but online platforms have allowed them to be portrayed as such.
We need to combat this; we need to educate people about unconscious misogyny and we also need to educate people about our shadow side. Because it isn't just 'other people' who do this; it's way too common for that."