The digital space has become an essential medium for activists and individuals to reach global audiences with messages on human rights, gender justice, and other critical social issues through social media platforms like Facebook. While online activism for gender justice is growing, violence against women on these online spaces is also on the rise. This issue of online violence as part of the larger backlash against women’s rights is the focus of a new pilot research project by BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) in collaboration with the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) under the Countering Backlash programme. Through the research we explore the online hate and threats of violence towards advocates for gender justice, and women in general, causing them to lose confidence, courage, and interest to speak out or advocate.
Following the Facebook pages of vocal women
For the research we chose to track the Facebook pages of three female media personnel based in Bangladesh who are vocal about women’s rights and gender justice issues. This included a social media influencer, a journalist, and a veteran actress who is also a development practitioner. It also included examining two events that flared up on social media and created mass debate on women’s agency and women’s rights in the context of Bangladesh during May – September 2021 and one anti-feminist Facebook group. The study looked at the interaction of the three media personnel in Facebook in depth and found that women’s choice of clothing, personal life choices, including relationship and marriage, LGBTQI issues, and contents on violence against women including rape, sexual harassment, and domestic violence were the most contested issues – resulting in the most online harassment and violence against the voice that raised them.
Types of backlash
Looking at the types of backlash, we found a few common types across issues and persons that occur repeatedly. The first and the most common form of backlash, regardless of the content they post, was name-calling and labelling of women, mostly as ‘prostitute’, targeting their personal life choices (such as clothing, marital/relationship partners, etc). Then came sexually explicit hate comments that are often directed to specific body parts of women, such as breasts and vaginas. In extreme cases, these led to rape threats and publishing sexually fabricated photographs to create a meme or post in the comment section to vilify these women.
Another major form of backlash was religious and moral policing. With this form, backlash actors bring in religion to point fingers and criticise female public figures for their clothing preferences, lifestyles, personal choices, and opinions. For instance, the social media influencer would oftentimes be blamed for coming in front of the camera and speaking in public without covering up. Many of these hate comments would also state how wrong she is to try to make a mark in the entertainment industry by showcasing a ‘western lifestyle’ without respecting her cultural roots.
A major form of backlash is delegitimising posts advocating for women’s rights. This comes with “male validation”, where male backlash actors are often seen defining what “ideal feminism/women’s rights/motherhood, etc.” is and deciding who is “credible” enough to be speaking on these matters. When the female public figures in our research posted contents on issues such as early childhood development, sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence, mental health, consent in a sexual relationship, marital rape, single parenthood, and such issues for public awareness, backlash actors would attack them by drawing on their personal life and suggest that they are not the “ideal” person to talk about such issues. When a series of delegitimising comments like this are posted and multiple fellow backlash actors ‘like’ them, the key messages originally posted by women eventually lose their relevance and seriousness.
Backlash actors also mocked and trivialised with ‘haha’ reactions on Facebook to devalue the underlying messages directed towards understanding women’s struggles better and fighting misogynistic discourses and actions in patriarchy. Even when someone took legal action against the cyber-harassment it was not taken seriously and rather delegitimised with a comment stating that it was waste of time.
Who are the perpetrators?
But who are these backlash actors? We tried to find if those posting the online abuse are an organised group or if they share any common identity. Our research looked at Bangladeshi and Bangla speaking people, living both inside and outside of Bangladesh and found that the backlash is coming from the broad public, and thus it is hard to pinpoint any specific organised groups.
Many of the perpetrators hide behind fake accounts on Facebook to maintain anonymity. For the locked accounts, the gender and other background information could not be determined. The accessible accounts showed that most of the commenters are men and boys, aged between their early twenties to late forties. However, women too are actors and accomplices of backlash. There is a trend of openly posting and commenting based on religion-based critiques and moralising, both by women and men. We found that fake accounts are primarily used to post sexually explicit comments and rape threats.
Tactics to counter the backlash
We also found that the female personalities are using tactics to counter the backlash. The most common one is filtering and restricting the comments on their Facebook pages, especially when posting about more sensitive subjects – such as LGBTQI rights. Sometimes they appoint moderators for their social media handles who remove offensive hate comments. An interesting tactic we observed was using dark humour and sarcasm to highlight the contested issue. It can be assumed that making serious issues sound “lighter” results in less severe backlash. Other tactics include calling out to the hate commenters through a short video, replying with wits while showing the screenshot of the hate comment, talking about the abuse and harassment on media outlets and radio, and taking legal actions.
Online and offline harms
Although online violence most often does not lead to physical harm offline, the online violence is far more widespread and intense. On one hand it subtly (or not so subtly) aims to send women back to their “acceptable” roles – how society expects women should behave and thus sanctioning discrimination, stigmatisation and violence against women. On the other hand, protesting women’s rights online is easier than protesting or preventing women from enjoying their rights on the streets. The scope of anonymity and lack of legal consequences give the perpetrators the opportunity of committing the violence with impunity, making it a lethal weapon for silencing women’s voices.
This emerging form of online backlash on social media is not only closing the digital space for women but also shrinking the civic space for promoting gender justice. We need to acknowledge the severity of this violence and its impact on the lives women and girls. It is high time to understand and address the depth of this issue in today’s digital world and take a comprehensive approach to prevent and mitigate online risks, and promote a safe online space for everyone.