Paper for the
STS Conference, Graz: "Critical Issues in Science and Technology Studies"
May 05-06, 2014
Special Session 6: Bodies – Technologies – Gender
Online harassment and online solidarity –
a technofeminist perspective
An ita Thal er
IFZ/STS – Alpen-Adria Universität Klagenfurt | Wien, Graz
In this paper I discuss the role of digital technology in gender-related discriminatory and harassing
activities. I will present various forms of online misogyny and shed also a light on social media,
especially on Twitter, as an arena for online solidarity and support. Coming from science and
technology studies, I will argue with a technofeminist perspective that technology neitheroffers an
easy fix to discrimination, nor can it be seen as the source of it, as both, gender and technology are
fluid and shape each other mutually.
“From its beginning, the Internet has prompted euphoric hopes for strengthening the women’s
movement, more gender equality, new public spaces for feminist issues and world wide networking,
solidarity and community building of women.” (Carstensen & Winker 2007, p.109).
The hope in the early days of the internet was that the absence of the physical body would help
overcoming sexism, racism or bodyism of any kind. But although the internet is on the one hand an
arena of disembodiment, ‘ascribed bodies’ serve as a foil for internet users’ associations,
expectations and stereotypes. Even if users try to avoid avatar names or photos in their social media
accounts, which show their real life bodies and give hints about their age, gender and other social
categories, their messages and photos will constantly evoke pictures about these very users in the
recipients of their messages. These pictures in our recipients’ minds have certain bodies, like the
characters of stories we read about in a book. And no matter if these ascribed bodies have more or
less similarity with our real life bodies; they are connected to genders, age, sexual preferences etc.
and hence evoke stereotypes.
Now, the anonymity and interactivity of social media allow internet users to respond immediately
and share their associations without the need to identify themselves. On the one hand, this very fact
encourages public sharing of discriminatory experiences which would otherwise be kept private, but
on the other hand it also allows derogatory comments about others. So the euphoric hopes of the
internet as a gender equal and social just virtual world have not become true.
And in the last years, with the pervasiveness of smart technologies, online harassment has become
ubiquitous, too. Even when victims are not online the harassment can go on, additional parties can
be involved, and victims cannot escape from incriminating situations.
In the following I will present two examples of online harassing activities to illustrate the
phenomenon of online misogyny.
Example 1 is an online hate campaign against Anita Sarkeesian, who works as a feminist pop culture
critic and has reached popularity with her online videos about females in computer games (“Tropes
vs. Women”-series; see more: http://www.feministfrequency.com/). She gave a TEDxWomen Talk
about Online Harassment & Cyber Mobs (2012;
where she explained how a kickstarter campaign she started to finance one of her projects, turned
into a hate campaign against her. She talked about experiencing misogynic reactions beyond the
‘usual sexist’ ones:
“Now, I’m a pop culture critic, I’m a feminist and I’m a woman. And I’m all of these things,
openly, on the internet so I’m no stranger to some level of sexist backlash. I’ve sadly gotten
used to sexist slurs, and sexist insults, usually involving kitchens and sandwiches…” (Anita
Sarkeesian 2012, http://www.feministfrequency.com/2012/12/tedxwomen-talk-on-sexist-
But this time it did not stop here, a cyber mob attacked her virtually:
“All my social media sites were flooded with threats of rape, violence, sexual assault, death –
and you’ll notice that these threats and comments were all specifically targeting my gender.
… There were images made, pornographic images made in my likeness being raped by video
game characters and sent to me again and again.” (Anita Sarkeesian 2012,
Significantly, the comments on the original TEDxWomen Talk website had to be shut off:
“WHY ARE COMMENTS TURNED OFF? This talk comes from a woman who was targeted by an
online hate campaign. Predictably, the same campaign has targeted this talk, so comments
have been shut down. If you’d like to comment constructively on this video, please share on
your own social networks.” (Quote http://tedxwomen.org/speakers/anita-sarkeesian-2/
So although the physical body was absent in this first example it was threatened and the implication
of this online misogyny concerned the real person with her real body too.
Example 2 is the harassing activity of digitally assisted stalking. While stalking can be generally coined
as “obsessional following” (Meloy 2001, p.2), digitally assisted stalking means that stalkers are using
modern technologies to expand or support their obsessional behaviour. Technologies like social
media, spyware and google maps brought harassment and violence, like stalking,to a digital level.
Digitally assisted stalking is often harder to identify as stalkers are not necessarily standing in front of
the victim’s house. Thus, technology can make stalking a lot easier (Perry 2013).
“Stalkers who stalk offline will usually assist their activities with some form of technology as a
tool e.g. mobile phones, social networks, computers or geolocation tracking. This can be
characterised as “digitally assisted stalking”, as opposed to cyberstalking
. However like
cyberstalkers, the abuser will use a many different types of technology to torment their
victims. They may also use GPS tracking devices on a victim’s car. If they have or have had
access to the victims mobile, they can put spyware that allows them not only to track the
victim, but use the victim’s own mobile to listen into conversations or see what is going on via
the camera.“ (Quote: http://www.digital-stalking.com/stalking-victims/types-of-
Smart phone apps like “Girls Around Me” work like a standard geolocation based maps app, with the
goal to alert you to things of interest in your immediate vicinity. But in combination with Facebook
and the data users leave there, it can be used as a stalking tool and track down people and follow
their steps online or in the ‘real world’ (Brownlee 2012).
„The term cyberstalking refers to a victim that is being abused online, but isn’t being stalked in the
offline world.“ (Quote: http://www.digital-stalking.com/stalking-victims/types-of-
The possibilities of social media
Although the hope for a social just and gender equal internet came not true and misogyny grows
very well online, the publicness of social media can also have positive effects. Social media can offer
feminist solidarity and empowerment:
When misogyny and harassment happens in real life situations, victims are often alone or
feel left alone. With social media, victims can gain a ‘protected visibility’, bundle single
voices, spread their stories, and tell those who were not aware as well as connect those
(many) who shared also one or other experience. Twitter hashtags like #aufschrei (“outcry”)
in German speaking countries or #shoutingback give an impression and raise awareness
about of how immense this problem of misogyny and harassment in real life actually is.
Also (potential) victims are too often blamed: they hear they should avoid certain areas,
should not go out alone, should not display certain behaviour or wear certain clothes, all
meant to keep people (of colour, females or female looking, etc.) ‘save’. And so certain
areas, behaviours or clothes are often avoided, but nevertheless harassment and violence
still exist. It has not the intended effect, but on the other hand it restrains people. Here,
social media can offer victims solidarity, not only can they can tell their stories and see that
they are not alone. Moreover, it is made transparent that it is not an individual’s behaviour
which is the reason for harassment but a culture of misogyny.
And sadly, victims are ashamed, mostly because they feel or are in fact left alone and blamed
(by specific persons as well as media and society), they feel ashamed and sometimes blame
themselves. Social media can enable victims; they can shout back, they can tell what is wrong
in our society and where they would have needed support. And finally it becomes clear that
it is not the individual victim who should change, but the offenders and the whole culture of
misogyny, beginning from the fact that “being like a girl” or “gay” are used as cuss words.
Twitter as a feminist arena
Feminist individuals and organisations use Twitter (often parallel to websites, Facebook etc.;
@misogyny_online, @EvrydayFeminism, @iHollaback, @EverydaySexism, @WomenUndrSiege,
@QueerofGender, @aufschreien, etc.) to spread knowledge, raise awareness and support victims.
One of the major differences between Facebook and Twitter is that Twitter is not about the person,
it is about their content, thus “rather than social circles, Twitter users have audiences” (Rogers 2014,
This means, Twitter can be ideally used for spreading news and discussing e.g. global relevant topics
beyond a network of acquaintances and friends. With #hashtags Twitter users can mark words in
their messages (‘tweets’), which can then be searched easily. Thus, with hashtags Twitter users can
interact with others concerning #onespecifictopic (read more about Twitter:
https://discover.Twitter.com/) without the limitation of a previous known set of ‘friends’.
Hashtags are in fact one of many interesting examples of user innovation, as so many popular
possibilities of Twitter – like the @mentions or retweets – were originally invented by users
has not only shaped internet communication of its users, but Twitter itself has been shaped by its
users’ behaviour and their practice (Weller et al. 2014) and is one recent example of the science and
technology studies’ theory of mutual shaping of design and use (Rohracher 2006).
Twitter hashtags like #shoutingback, #destroythejoint, #aufschrei and #everydaysexism give an
impression of how immense the problem of misogyny and harassment in real life is and show that it
is not a minority that is affected. Twitter campaigns or Twitter hashtags make recognition of certain
topics easier, help showing and getting solidarity and opens the opportunity to “shout back”.
Thus, technology can unveil mechanisms of harassment by multiplying single voices and pointing to a
societal problem: a culture of misogyny.
The examples of the #aufschrei and #destroythejoint campaigns show how this can work in reality:
In the night from 24th to 25th of January 2013 a Twitter conversation started between Anne Wizorek
(@marthadear) and Nicole Horst (@vonhorst) about a sexist incidence at a political gathering in 2012
(published in the German weekly magazine Stern), when Wizorek finally had the idea of collecting
similar experiences with the hashtag #aufschrei (“outcry”; Caspari 2014).
In the following days thousands of tweets used the hashtag, giving an insight into everyday sexism in
German speaking countries. In the short period from 25th to 28th January 58,000 tweets were written,
using #aufschrei (source: http://venturevillage.eu/aufschrei-sexism-germany-Twitter), and the online
debate went on intensely for several weeks. It was then also covered by various print media and
found its way into TV-reports as well. In January 2013 a Twitter account called @aufschreien and a
website www.alltagssexismus.de were installed, where people can tell about their sexism and
harassment experiences until today.
McLean and Maalsen (2013) argue that social media like Twitter offer a ‚paradoxical space’ where a
form of „semi-anonymity allows engagement in spaces which may otherwise be restricted“ (p. 244)
and refer to the ‚Destroy the Joint’ (DTJ) campaign, which bundled multiple reactions to a misogynist
statement of the conservative radio commentator Alan Jones in Australia 2012. Twitter users joined
in the online criticism by using the hashtag #destroythejoint as „transformative political acts ... to
subvert the hegemonic paradigm“ (ibid., p. 247). The transformative political effects of feminist
engagement of various kinds can be seen for instance in the increased web searches for the word
A technofeminist perspective
When McLean and Maalsen conclude: “The ubiquitous quality of this technology partially facilitates
the continuation of movements like DTJ.” (ibid., p. 254) this statement can be seen as one side of the
coin. In fact Donna Haraway’s notion of the ‘cyborg’ (1985) becomes somehow reality (Lupton calls it
“digital cyborg assemblage”, 2013), at least for users of pervasive technologies, who for instance
carry or wear technology (nearly) always on their bodies, like smartphones or smartwatches.
The technofeminist perspective is based on the current STS approach of mutual shaping of the social
and the technological and analyses how feminist issues are strengthened, intervened or restricted by
technological possibilities (cf. Carstensen & Winker 2007).
In the case of online misogyny and online feminism, we can see this mutual shaping:
Misogyny and sexism can be understood as social practices, which can be influenced in routinised
relations by (technological) artefacts as well as bodies. Artefacts can support or limit behaviour, but
they are never the only source, nor simple utilities (Carstensen & Winker 2012).
Moreover, technology can be shaped itself and used positively. This connects to Donna Haraway’s
‘cyborg manifesto’ (1985) again, which emphasised the positive potential of science and technology
and rejected the idea of returning to a ‘mythical natural state’ (Lupton 2013).
The example of online misogyny and the feminist potential of social media are examples of a
technofeminist understanding of gender and technology:
„Avoiding both technological determinism and gender essentialism, technofeminist approaches
emphasize that the gender–technology relationship is fluid and flexible, and that feminist politics and
not technology per se are the key to gender equality.” (Wajcman, 2007, p. 287)
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