It is undeniable that social media plays an increasingly important role in mobilizing support for causes and campaigns. It has become an important platform for presidential elections, and will soon be saturated with gendered commentary following Hillary Clinton’s recent announcement to run for President. After all, unlike Republican candidates Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz – who all announced their run in speeches and rallies – Hillary Clinton recently released a video on social media to announce her run. Thus, the question remains: how does the use of social media impact women?
As Nisha Chittal recently stated, “a new wave of feminism is here, and the most powerful weapon is the hashtag.” #Askhermore trended during this season’s award shows, encouraging reporters to ask female celebrities other questions besides what they were wearing. #Notbuyingit trended during the Super Bowl in an effort to call out sexist ads. And #whyIstayed trended after a talking-head asked a survivor of a domestic violence scandal why she stayed, prompting other survivors to share their own personal stories on social media. And the list goes on.
Chittal goes on to explain how social media has democratized feminism, making it accessible to anyone with internet access and the desire to fight patriarchy. In a sense, she describes how the Internet is able to negate spatiality, creating solidarity among women nationwide, which allows for a more effective space for public dialogue.
However, despite Chittal’s optimism, her argument isn’t entirely convincing, because at the end of the day, the Internet is a double-edged sword. Women can champion causes by using the Internet as a public forum, but that doesn’t mean the public won’t respond. And unfortunately the public seems to exist in a very patriarchal and misogynist form.
A recent study done by Sydney University found that women’s voices are marginalized on the Internet. Women make up only between 3 and 35 percent of comments on the Internet. The professor who conducted the study stated that these findings are consistent with research about women’s voice in public spaces—spaces that are consistently dominated by men. And more over, she stated the imbalance seems to be driven by everyday gender dynamics, in which men routinely dominate women.
So if men are dominating the conversation on the Internet, what exactly are they saying? In a recent Op-Ed, Ashley Judd illustrates what can happen to women who express unpopular opinions on social media by describing her own experience of receiving responses that sexualize, objectify, insult, degrade, and threaten physical violence. After receiving such backlash in response to an unpopular comment about a March Madness basketball game, she stated in the context of twitter, “what happened to me is the devastating social norm experienced by millions of girls and women on the Internet. Online harassers use the slightest excuse (or no excuse at all) to dismember our personhood.” And she has a point.
If you read through some of the hateful, sexist tweets Judd received in response to her comment about a basketball game, you might think her particular experience is particularly extreme. It is not like every single woman who posts something about feminism on the Internet is going to receive responses that threaten violent sexual assault, right? The point is, I’m not sure we should be praising social media just yet. It is an incredible medium to garner support and spread information, and we should not refrain from using it out of fear for negative responses. But it’s important to keep in mind that as a public forum, it reinforces the fact that the public still responds to women with patriarchy and misogyny. And a response only takes one anonymous tweet.