A look into social media’s sinister underbelly yields important questions — Will it ultimately empower women, or is social media undermining women’s rights and reversing our progress toward gender equality?
In a recent Paper magazine interview, 14-year-old Disney Channel star Rowan Blanchard and 58-year-old Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards predicted social media will be a powerful force in “opening doors” for women and empowering them to offer their authentic stories to the world. But are they terribly off base in their optimism? A look into the shadows of the social world reveals tales of social media undermining women’s rights more than laying ground for a brighter future.
Sure, many stories and campaigns exist on social media that build women up, but contrary to the conclusion made by Blanchard and Richards, social media is far from being a vehicle used for authenticity. Most acknowledge that social media is — at best — a completely fake depiction of life. A deeper examination of the social world reveals a far more sinister story — one wrought with sexual abuse, harassment, threats, violence, and defamation. The veil of anonymity propagates hate speech toward women both online and off (including spewing derogatory names as well as comments about wanting to beat women into submission), a reflection of a larger societal problem. Within its magnification of sex, drugs, and bullying, girls are made to feel powerless in standing up to objectification. Sadly, this often results in the ruining of girls’ reputations or even in them taking their own lives.
In November, the UN issued a “wake-up call” that social media fuels cyber violence against women. And the threat isn’t just virtual — violent online behavior spawns real violence, or the attempt thereof. Just ask video game developer Zoe Quinn. She was forced to go into hiding during the Gamergate controversy after cyber stalkers threatened to kill her.
As young women move forward in this world of violence and bullying, seeing their value diminish into the oblivion of digital objectification, can we truly say the future is bright? Or are we seeing the beginning stages of a complete societal backslide of social media undermining women’s rights on a grand scale?
Some in South Africa believe legislation is the answer and have proposed a Films and Publications Amendment Bill which is scheduled to be engaged this week. It calls for their Films and Publications Board to have power to censor Internet activity to protect children from harmful media and to outlaw revenge porn. Others fear it’s a threat to free speech. But if this isn’t the solution, what is? What will it take for us to stand up against the growing danger of violence and defamation? Even worse, in a world where we talk about the progress of women’s rights, is social media revealing an ugly truth that women’s safety and best interests are still of little priority in our world?