The trouble with expressing your right to have a voice online, particularly as a woman, is that it threatens longstanding, traditional notions of power.
It challenges safe and comfortable beliefs regarding who gets to have a say about the major issues of the day.
But the fact we see those disgruntled about these new powers express their dissatisfaction by trolling and abusing those they deem undeserving of such a voice online, is really just a reflection of attitudes held in general society.
After all, internet trolls are people. They have jobs, families, relationships. They do ordinary things like go to work, visit the gym, and pick the kids up from school. They just happen to use online forums to express what they really think about the changing state of the world.
This was a key issue that emerged during a Women’s Agenda Q&A with Labor backbencher Clare O’Neil and e-Safety Commissioner Alastair MacGibbon last week, following a workshop we hosted with Twitter Australia on how to have a stronger voice online.
As MacGibbon put it:
Technology holds the great hope of democratisation. The web really should be the great equaliser. A place that allows people to have the voice that they may not be able to have offline.
But when people actively move to take that voice from other people – through trolling, takedowns and negativity – the great democratic hope of the internet is destroyed. “It actually mutes a portion of the community,” he said. “And it’s very clearly targeted at women.”
And it’s also ultimately about power, and the threat some people feel regarding minority groups being given more influence and a greater voice than they’ve previously had access to.
Indeed, O’Neil noted that if women are ever in doubt that it’s about power, just look at the tweets or other online messages you create that result in people attacking you. They’re usually about gender issues.
Such attacks may have increased, but they didn’t start with the proliferation of online tools that make anonymous commenting and posting simpler. O’Neil said she’s been receiving various forms of such abuse long before she got on social media.
It’s been happening my whole life in politics. Before we had the online space, which makes it easy to do, I’d still get disgusting things in the post. Sexualised, violent things.
Explaining her hard-working mother’s optimism about the future of feminism, O’Neil stated that she couldn’t feel as confident about the future and felt she had to step up to do more. She said she was doing so by ‘running for stuff’: by successfully running for Mayor of Dandenong at age 23, and later for the Federal seat of Hotham in her early thirties.
Equal access to education and working opportunities only got us so far, she added. They may not be enough to get us to what we now need to go, especially when you consider the level of misogynistic views that still exist in the wider community.
Indeed, she said all the issues still affecting the wellbeing of women – including our safety online and off – are connected. The gender pay gap is getting wider and looks set to expand further still. Women hold barely 20% of director positions at our largest listed companies. Women account for just a third of parliamentary positions and, despite a number of recent promotions, still only 25% of the Turnbull Government Cabinet.
What happens online is merely a reflection of broader society. A society where women still do not have the same access to power as men. And when men and women still ultimately hold plenty of underlying, misogynistic views. The internet’s merely made it easier to express such views and to clearly see the level of discomfort many feel in giving women a voice.
“The internet is society,” said MacDonnell.
The thing that’s scary about it is that it strips away a lot of the social veneer about how we behave offline … It’s us. It’s our friends. It’s our neighbours. If we don’t like what we see, then we need to ask about those fundamental flaws we have in society.
So what can be done? MacGibbon’s role as e-Safety Commissioner has been legislated to specifically see his office protecting children under 18. He works with major partners like Facebook, Google, Twitter and Instagram to take down offensive material and to create major education campaigns for young people.
He believes the achievements his Office has had for children and their families in just three months of operation proves more can be done to protect other vulnerable segments of people online.
But he also believes a long-term generational change is needed, and that starts with educating young children. Schools, tech companies, not-for-profits and government agencies can help, but ultimately parents and guardians also have to play a major part, including by understanding the technologies their children are accessing and having difficult conversations about the things they encounter online.
If parents can’t parent online, but can still hand an iPad to a kid to use as an entertainment tool, then we’ve failed.
O’Neil believes that those who’ve found a voice, herself included, need to use it to better give women access to power.
Pushing ourselves into more leadership roles, and other things that will improve gender equity over time, will help.
She also noted the positive role social media is playing in giving elected representatives a direct line to people, as well as in opening new conversations.
Social media is making spokespeople for gender issues. If Twitter and Facebook hadn’t been there, they would have been sitting in their living rooms feeling frustrated.