Cyber Violence is Chilling Women’s Participation in Politics

By Diana McCaffrey

Following accusations of an affair and the release of nude photos by her soon-to-be ex-husband, former Democratic Representative Katie Hill of California delivered a resignation speech detailing the thousands of threatening messages that drove her to resign. This past summer, Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York was the subject of sexually violent memes shared by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents in a Facebook group. Hill and Ocasio-Cortez are among the diverse wave of representatives elected to the House in 2018, and their harrowing experiences exemplify the technology-related violence that threatens women’s participation in politics.

Research indicates that professionals in public roles, such as journalists, politicians, and activists, are one of three categories of women most targeted by gender-based cyber violence, the other two categories being victims of domestic abuse and survivors of sexual violence. Moreover, female candidates and elected officials are twice as likely to be targeted compared to their male counterparts, and abuse is amplified for women of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Cyber violence limits women’s freedom of speech: abuse worsens when women express political opinions, and intensifies when women campaign and are elected.

Gender-based violence prevents women from fully participating in society and achieving equitable status, which ultimately contributes to fewer female candidates and elected officials. Ultimately, democracy is undermined because our dangerous political environment fails to foster descriptive representation, and we as a society are penalized by a lack of diverse political representation.

Yet cyber violence is not properly legislated against on the federal level nor acknowledged by political institutions as a legitimate problem. This suggests that a two-fold solution could help address cyber-violence and promote a safer political environment.

Currently, political parties and funding organizations such as Ignite train female candidates to take precautionary measures, like posting “grandma safe” pictures and avoiding sexting. By advising female candidates to take extra precautions, these institutions reinforce the status-quo: that victims of gender-based violence are responsible for the abuse they endure.

Rather, responsibility for gender-based violence should lie with the perpetrator, and organizations should implement prevention and response protocols that shift responsibility from victims to perpetrators. Political networks should recognize that cyber violence is a serious threat that undermines the vitality of their political institutions, and administer training that supports female candidates and denounces online abuse. These institutions have the power to shift responsibility and acknowledge cyber violence as an issue that matters.

To properly address the spectrum of violence that women face, the federal Violence Against Women Act should include legislative measures that criminalize and counteract technology-related violence. Indeed, the failures of Twitter and Facebook to address cyber violence have resulted in the elevation of misogyny on these platforms.

Unfortunately, there are cultural and legal barriers that trivialize the occurrence of technology-related violence. Authorities regularly dismiss victims of domestic and sexual violence, but technology-related violence is often ignored due to lack of physical harm. However, medical research confirms the psychological trauma caused by technology-related violence, and psychological violence is recognized in international law and most national jurisdictions. Furthermore, technology-related violence against women exists in a continuum. Technology enables abusers to deliver virtual threats and engage in stalking and other acts of harassment that translate into physical violence.

Cyber violence persists due to complicity. To date, political institutions and companies like Twitter and Facebook reinforce the structural inequities that facilitate violence against women. Although reforms like federal legislation would help address technology-related violence, it will take collective, societal action to shift the cultural norms that cultivate gender-based violence. Two-thirds of Americans have witnessed abusive or harassing behavior towards others online, and we must do more as observers to enact change. We can all become allies by reporting observed behavior to social media platforms and by letting your representative know why cyber violence should be taken seriously.

Photo by Gage Skidmore on Flickr

Diana McCaffrey is a graduate student at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University studying urban and social policy, and gender policy. She is particularly passionate about the issue areas of reproductive and sexual health and rights, and gender-based violence prevention. Diana holds a B.A. in Sociology from the University of California, Berkeley.