In my previous column, “Social media influencers and modern politics,” I discussed the dangerous influence of digital PR agencies and influencers in spreading political disinformation, highlighting the urgent need for accountability. Recently, we have had a frightening glimpse of how this power can be abused differently—by targeting regular people.
TV host and entrepreneur Maggie Wilson has been using her platform to raise awareness about the alleged disinformation campaign against her. Through a series of screenshots that Wilson obtained, TikTok influencers with over 3 million followers agreed in a group chat to defame Wilson in exchange for P8,000 per post. After Wilson threatened legal ramifications, several users retracted their earlier statements. Many of them admitted that they followed the supplied script without doing their research on the issue. Some reasoned that they just took on the “project” out of financial need.
In 2013, the World Health Organization called the violence against women “a global health problem of epidemic proportion,” from domestic abuse, harassment, and rape to murder and sex trafficking. Social media has not only given abusers a larger platform, it also spawned new forms of violence. In 2021, the Economist Intelligence Unit reported that online violence against women globally stands at 85 percent and that women face online attacks more frequently than men. In the Philippines, the Foundation for Media Alternatives tracked 130 cases of online gender-based violence (OGBV) in 2020. This was a 165 percent jump from 2019, marking the highest number of cases since they began collecting data in 2015.
The Economist Intelligence Unit study found misinformation and defamation as the leading form of online abuse experienced by women. Gendered disinformation unfairly targets women using language that reinforces stereotypes and misogynistic narratives: from depicting them as unreliable and incompetent at work to subjecting their physical appearance and personal lives to unwarranted scrutiny.
During a recent She Talks Asia forum on media freedom, Karen Davila highlighted the disproportionately higher levels of online trolling and hate speech faced by female journalists in comparison to their male counterparts. She shared that even for seasoned journalists, the constant exposure to derogatory comments could have a chilling effect, effectively discouraging women from actively participating in public discourse. Other harmful consequences include psychological trauma for victims and online threats translating into real-life violence.
Sexual narratives are the most common form of gendered disinformation, either sexualizing women or demonizing them as immoral. For instance, the majority of leaked photos and fabricated online pornography feature women. Another frequently employed tactic is the practice of slut-shaming or tarnishing an individual’s reputation based on their perceived sexual behavior. In 2016, much of the discussion surrounding Sen. Leila de Lima’s case focused on her purported sex videos, under the guise of providing evidence that would substantiate her alleged involvement in the drug trade.
While some lawmakers effectively blocked the videos from being shown during the hearing, it did not stop bashers from flooding the internet with sexist and offensive memes, posts, and comments.
In 2019, Republic Act No. 11313, also known as the Safe Spaces Act, was signed into law, which included provisions criminalizing gender-based online sexual harassment. It is important to note, however, that having laws does not necessarily lead to meaningful and effective change. In 64 out of 86 countries studied by the Web Index, law enforcement and courts often fail to take appropriate action against online violence targeting women.
Social media did not cause misogyny—and an unsafe internet landscape for women is a symptom of a much larger problem. Apart from strategies to fight against disinformation, combating OGBV requires specific responses that consider the deep-seated issues that allow it to thrive. For example, social media companies have sought to improve their content moderation practices. But if they fail to recognize and address how biases of content moderators largely influence the decisions on what gets taken down and what is allowed to stay up, there will always be women whose legitimate complaints will continue to fall on deaf ears.
Many solutions that seek to combat OGBV are focused on responding after the fact, but it is good to remember that users have an equally significant role to play in its prevention. Users shape the online culture that dictates what kind of content is acceptable or not. Users have the power to boycott online platforms that do not prioritize safety. Effectively policing misogyny in social media has proven to be difficult.
But if more users could make a genuine commitment to be kinder, more respectful, and more responsible online, there just might be fewer cases to police.