Why do people abuse online? Violence against women and *that* cupcake sale

We all read about the cupcake sale that lead to death and rape threats about a week ago. If you didn’t, here’s what you need to know: a bunch of students at the University of Queensland had a bake sale that was priced to reflect the gender pay gap. For instance, men would pay a full $1 for a cupcake, while a woman working in a legal profession who identified as LGBTIQA+ and had a disability would pay a cool 64 cents. The goal? Raising awareness of inequality. The outcome? A barrage of horrific online abuse from angry men.

A quick Google will bring up some nice screengrabs that’ll give you a neat idea of just how acrid these threats and instances of sexual violence were. Notable mention to the post promoting domestic violence, with the caption ‘Women deserve equal rights…and lefts’. I see what you did there (you twat).

This bake sale sure has unwittingly forced the dark, deep roots of misogyny to surface, but this is by no means the first or last time it’s reared its abhorrent head. The internet offers a new, more visible platform for violence against women, and changes the way we encounter (and can fight) it.

Social platforms — Facebook, especially — have come under fire before for promoting violence and hatred towards women. Most notably, Aussie journalist Clementine Ford reported a post to the platform for “annoying and distasteful humour” that included a meme with a young woman who had blood running down her face, and the caption “He told me to make him a sandwich…I should have listened”. Facebook said that this didn’t violate community standards, and left it onsite. Ford received a 30 day ban from the platform for telling a man to fuck off after he called her a diseased whore.

Turns out that Ford has also been suspended from Facebook for reporting other threats she’d received, including one that told her to sit on a butcher’s knife. Facebook, on the other hand, has no issue villainising pictures of fully exposed breasts but feels peachy about lifting a ban on videos featuring human beheadings. Facebook also feels pretty good about allowing a video of child abuse to stay up, because they feel it’s a way to highlight and condemn the abuse. The message here? Facebook is deliberately selective about the type of hate it allows to spread, with no time or space for women’s rights or voices.

There’s also been backlash following Instagram’s censorship of a woman’s photos where it’s visible she has her period. I’ve previously written on the dimensions of period hate for those keen to learn more.

Rupi Kaur InstagramImage credit: Rupi Kaur/ Instagram

But beyond the power wielded by these specific institutions, what does this kind of anonymous internet hate boil down to? Is the power of anonymity enough to will people into abusing others as way to feel powerful? And what, really, do they get out of it?

The internet allows for anyone, anywhere to post what they want and what they feel. Social networks allow them to connect with other like-minded people, and form relationships based on shared interests. So if you consider how ingrained and historically embedded violence against women is, it shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise that the internet has exposed how deep these dark rivers run. Only it does, because there’s no way you can prepare yourself to experience the extent of that violence until you’re looking at it.

These keyboard warriors spit bile because they’ve always done it; only now, it’s much more publicly visible.

Plus, there are spades of worrying studies that prove the negative effects power and authority can have on a person. It’s been found that those in positions of authority — ahem, that they believe to exert over these women online — are more likely to rely on stereotype and generalisations in judging others. Stereotype and generalisation in terms of, say, the ingrained values of the patriarchy? To boot, a sense of power, says Sukhvinder Obhi, neuroscientist at Ontario’s Wilfrid Laurier University, “diminishes all varieties of empathy”. Can we somehow combat our keyboard warriors’ skewed sense of power and entitlement, now that the internet has helped us see it more clearly?

We can certainly name and shame, which as much as it promotes the idea that there are consequences for these actions, is empowering for victims. We can reach out to communities that, like us, are fighting the good fight, and kick up fuss (or, use irony to pop lols) in the hopes that these violent men will finally be seen for what they are in the eyes of the general majority. It’s what we’re doing, and it’s doing something, but not enough.

If we’re going to change the status quo, we’re doing to need social platforms, media outlets, and decision makers to step up. They, like the newspapers of heyday, have extraordinary power in curating what is shown as ‘our’ news, and what we see and imagine is happening in the world. They are businesses, like everything else, and thrive off the assumption we’ll continue to post data on their platforms. As essentially their customers, we need to give them a business case for silencing all hate speech: that their product is not okay the way it is, and that they need to address their social responsibility.

Mon

Mon is a firm feminist who believes in the power of language and good media to make change. An avid reader and arts buff, her interests lie in media representation and reportage of gender and sex.