San Francisco Chronicle
Rampant misogyny online debases a culture that once valued gallantry
Racism and other noxious declarations, misogyny and cyber-bullying — or (mostly) men behaving badly — are so widespread on the internet that it hurts millions of women and men and debases a culture that once valued kindness, courtesy and gallantry. This needs to be stopped, or at least greatly diminished, and this takes both laws and cultural change.
As we are coming to see, the internet is not the paradise of information and communication that was the conventional wisdom at the beginning of the 21st century. The “information superhighway” that Vice President Al Gore touted in the 1990s is now strewn with wrecks, big and small: Russian meddling in the U.S. election, cyber attacks on companies and governments, Facebook depression, internet addiction, email overkill and hate speech, to name a few.
As many as two-thirds of female journalists say they have received anonymous threats of rape and murder, vicious comments on their appearance, or other forms of online harassment. After Fox News presenter Megyn Kelly asked Donald Trump about his calling women “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals,” Trump tweeted that Kelly had blood “coming out of her wherever.” Boys and men sext and post revenge porn against exwives or ex-girlfriends.
Many mass shooters, like Elliot Rodger, have been “involuntary celibates,” or “incels,” who have been spurned by women. Before shooting 13 people in Isla Vista (Santa Barbara County), Rodger ranted on YouTube about women not paying attention to him, saying he wanted to “slaughter every single, spoiled stuck-up blonde slut I see.” In the far corners of the so-called “manosphere,” disgruntled men essentially call for revolution by rape, denigrating women while urging that followers “hate-f—” as many women as possible. And the bile goes on.
Such misogyny is quite different from sexism or many forms of sexual harassment. For eons, most men have been acculturated to be sexist, but most sexism didn’t result in hatred or attacks on women. Similarly, schoolyard or boardroom bullies have long intimidated (mostly) other boys and men, but that too didn’t include invective that can be widely shared and lives forever on the internet.
It also doesn’t mean that women and girls don’t engage in somewhat similar online behavior. There are diatribes against “misfit men” and “sending single white boys to hell.” Women and girls trash exhusbands and boyfriends. And girls (and some women) implicitly put down other girls by posting photos to suggest “I’m more attractive” than the plural “you” of the cyber world.
Boys and men also make vitriolic comments online about other men. More than two in five young men reported being cyber-bullied with denigrating comments about their appearance or their (real or alleged) sexual orientation, according to a new study by Promundo-US, a nonprofit research and advocacy group that promotes gender equality. Another study by the Women’s Media Center found that men accounted for 28 percent of online victims, whether by women or other men.
Women have brought concerted attention to sexual harassment with the #MeToo movement, but the country also needs to focus on reducing online misogyny and cyberbullying. Although Facebook, Google and some web-hosting services have made efforts to weed out vile content, largely due to public and lawmakers’ pressure, much more can be done.
The internet needs greater regulation and policing. A regulatory body should be empowered to identify and deter online misogyny and bullying and their perpetrators. It also needs to work closely with local and federal law enforcement.
Penalties need to be harsher. While the Supreme Court decided in 2014 that the online rants of a man threatening to kill his wife and schoolchildren was protected under the First Amendment, a number of states have criminalized internet harassment and bullying. However, states such as Florida failed to pass a proposed bill, and Illinois’ law applies only to schoolchildren. Even in progressive California, online threats are only a misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 fine and/or up to a year in prison.
Although hundreds of thousands of Americans have appealed to Facebook and Google to remove damaging entries, the United States should adopt a “right to be forgotten” law, which would make it much easier to remove posts that inflict long-term harm on their victims. The European Union has had such a law since 2014 that enables Europeans to have social media and Google delete harmful and inaccurate posts and websites.
Laws and court decisions are important, but cultural change is, too, and it is harder. Parents, schools, workplaces and popular culture need to affirm that it is neither “manly” nor acceptable to resort to a limitless verbal arsenal to attack women or other men online (or elsewhere).
Respectful disagreement needs to be learned as the alternative to a fusillade of vulgar and hateful verbiage. Even if male gallantry toward women had a strong whiff of sexism, it is a better approach to intergender relations than the current online brutality. We may even need to again teach classes in manners and etiquette — on and off the internet.