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Digital abuse against feminist scholars: a case study

Engender and the Equal Media and Culture Centre for Scotland have hosted student placements from the MSc in Social Research at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Strathclyde Applied Gender Studies and Research Methods course. As part of their research outputs, the students have produced a series of blogs.

In this post, Yoke Baeyens explores a case study of the online backlash and digital abuse experienced by feminist researchers and scholars.

Online abuse is used as a silencing mechanism against women and other minoritised identities in the public (online) space.

Weaponising misogyny and dehumanisation techniques, perpetrators aim to push their targets outside the public sphere, to reinstate misogynistic, heteronormative dominance. These public displays of violence also serve to remind and threaten others who might want to defy misogynist, white supremacist, and heteronormative power structures. As Gosse et al. (2021) state, online abuse causes scholars and journalists to self-censor and choose ‘safe’ topics to discuss publicly in an attempt to protect themselves, thereby upholding the status quo. Indeed, research has shown that when women speak publicly about ‘controversial’ topics, such as feminism, this triggers online abuse. This is particularly a problem for feminist scholars who use social media to spread information on feminist research. These attacks must be recognised as part of a historical pattern of violent repercussions against those who defy patriarchal, white supremacist, capitalist dominance. Women have always been the target of abuse, and while the medium is new and everchanging, the intention is not.

Erin Dej writes about her own experience of anti-feminist backlash as a feminist scholar who carried out research on compensatory masculinity. Erin Dej and Jennifer Kilty turned the resulting abuse into a case study on the anti-feminist backlash against feminist academics. The researchers found three narrative forms of backlash, which combine to form a ‘braided thread’ of anti-feminist attacks. The threads are a collection of different arguments, views and points that can paint a wider picture when all are brought together. The authors found that these threads demonstrate continuity in anti-feminist tropes.

The first thread included the perceived dangers of feminism in the academy. This included feminist university curriculums “brainwashing” students into becoming “social justice warriors”. The abuse Dej faced also questioned her credibility and ethics as a researcher. The second thread was based on the idea that feminists are ruining gender relations. This included familiar tropes of the manhating feminist and positioned feminists as attempting to emasculate men, destroy men’s rights, and deny their power and contributions to society. It also included homophobic and transmisogynist abuse. This theme within the misogynistic abuse is linked to a masculinity crisis, something that is also researched by Jinsook Kim, who frames the abuse as a masculinising bonding experience. The third narrative thread is direct personal insults. This includes the use of gendered, violent language. This abuse aimed to sexualise Dej, evaluating her ‘worth’ as a sexual object within the male gaze. Harassment also included longstanding tropes concerning women’s ‘emotional instability’ and the effect thereof on their work and intellect. These personal insults use gendered language to dehumanise.

These three narrative threads weave together to form a highly gendered form of abuse against feminist scholars with the intent to silence them. These tropes are also highlighted by Hannah Yelin and Laura Clancy in their article exploring challenges facing feminist academics sharing work in the media and the gendered, raced intersections of ‘being visible’ in digital cultures which enable direct, public response. They focused on the anti-feminist backlash in response to an article about Meghan Markle’s feminism. While the results of their research include more reflections on patriarchal monarchy and the racialised image of Meghan Markle within the context of Brexit and Trump rhetoric, the misogynistic online abuse followed similar tired anti-feminist tropes faced by those who engage in public feminism.

Dej admits in her research that the silencing and humiliating intent behind the online abuse worked in part. She notes that she feared for her career and that writing this article felt like playing into what the perpetrators were accusing her of. Targets of online abuse often do not want to admit that harassment tactics worked on them. However, this silence around the topic plays into what the perpetrators want: silencing women and keeping the problems invisible. Dej has refused to be silenced and has added a significant contribution to the research on online abuse against feminist scholars.

Engender occasionally works with students as part of their placement requirements for university or college courses - this allows students to work with Engender on specific areas of our work for women's equality. Student blogs form part of their course assessment, and they do not receive payment from Engender.

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