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Abuse directed at visible and audible women demonstrates that cyberspace, once heralded as a new, democratic, public sphere, suffers similar gender inequalities as the offline world. This paper reports findings from a national UK study about experiences of online abuse among women who debate feminist politics. It argues that online abuse is most usefully conceived as a form of abuse or violence against women and girls, rather than as a form of communication.

It examines the experiences of those receiving online abuse, thereby making a valuable contribution to existing research which tends to focus on analysis of the communications themselves. Indeed, various organizations e. End Violence Against Women Coalition have framed concern about online abuse of women in terms of violence against women. However, much scholarship about online abuse has assumed it is unique to the cyber environment and early scholarship focused on defining and categorizing it as a form of communication, as we discuss below.

By contrast, our approach is to explore online abuse of this kind as an extension of offline gender relations which are marked by abuse and VAWG. In this paper, we first explore the recent development of perspectives on online abuse. Three gaps in the extant literature are identified: first, a failure to develop a robust gendered analysis; second, a lack of comparative analysis of online and offline VAWG; and third, a lack of victimological examination of online abuse experienced by women and girls.

Following that, we outline our methodology and then present findings relating to the nature and impact of online VAWG and responses to it. Since the recognition of online hate and abuse, scholarship has sought to define, explain and understand this growing phenomenon. Each of these waves has generated debate, as would be expected in an emerging body of scholarship. They also reflect a broader distinction in the cybercrime literature that separates out offending that could only be committed in an online environment e.

However, reviewing this work to illuminate online abuse directed at women and, particularly, those engaged in feminist debate online reveals three important and related gaps in the research. First, there is a glaring lack of gendered analysis of a phenomenon that is frequently gendered. Second, the focus on online abuse as a form of communication overlooks commonalities with other forms of VAWG. Third, s from recipients of online abuse which would reveal the experience and impacts of it are absent.

We discuss each of these shortcomings below. Firstly, research has rarely foregrounded a gendered analysis of these aggressive communications. While some refer to the sexualized or sexist nature of the content, many scholars have not acknowledged—let alone prioritized—this aspect. In mitigation, the sexualized and sexist nature of abusive communications need not always be the focus. However, for an investigation of gendered online abuse against women and girls, it is important to move beyond a focus on definitions and a tendency to group together diverse forms of hostile communication, without acknowledging specific features of misogynistic communication that require distinctive classification and explanation.

This highlights that flaming is varied, contextual and relational, distinguishes it from other forms of harassment and hate speech, and provides a platform for understanding sexualized and misogynistic abuse. While not directly comparable to the online abuse analysed in this paper because, e. Some scholarship pays attention to gendered dimensions of online abuse. This echoes work noting that racist hate crime attempts territorial exclusivity and the delegitimization of minority communities in some geographical areas Bowling Halder and Jaishankar : argue that part of the logic of victimization of women on social networking sites is to exclude certain voices from cyberspace.

As we argue below in relation to our data, recipients of such communication often identify it as an exclusionary attempt to delegitimize their online presence although it is frequently counterproductive since their resolve to political engagement can be strengthened as a result.

The second problem we observe in much scholarship is its conceptualization of online abuse as distinct from real-world contexts. The technologically deterministic approach exemplifies this, seeing aggressive communications as resulting from the technology used, allowing as it does anonymity and unability in a disinhibiting environment.

Such work has been the subject of thorough empirical and theoretical critique, including its failure to recognize the wider social context of gendered norms and sexist behaviours Vrooman Others have noted this failure to contextualize online abuse as an extension of offline behaviour. However, if online abuse is to be seen as an extension of real-world behaviour, then it might follow that those who are not misogynistic offline are unlikely to become so online simply because they are in an uninhibited environment, as a technologically determinist position might imply.

Proper understanding of these experiences requires that we move beyond analysis of texts to engagement with those who receive them, an approach we adopt in the analysis below. Although recent studies usefully examine the text used in online abuse, the third shortcoming we note is the failure to consider experiences of receiving online abuse. However, analysis needs to go further and consider the experience of receiving such online abuse. Thus, we cannot explore how the experience of abuse intersects with other aspects of life and identity, and we do not learn how such experiences are incorporated—or not—into daily activities, and political engagement, online and offline.

Considering the perspectives of recipients asserts their agency and capacity to respond to abuse and challenges not only perpetrators but also the conceptual and ideological context that underpins offensive behaviour. The diversity of responses to online abuse is further elaborated below. As outlined above, given that it has now been established that there are forms of abusive, threatening and violent online communication towards women, we focus specifically on that phenomenon directed at women who engage in feminist debate online.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that online feminism attracts both shocking levels of threats and violence but also more routine, even mundane levels of sexism, prejudice and misogyny. Rather than treating it as a form of communication, we locate it in wider forms of behaviours which constitute VAWG. This approach enables us to learn from examination of and theorizing about VAWG, to better understand the social role of online abuse of feminists and its impacts.

In doing this, we contribute not only to knowledge about patterns and impacts of victimization but also to development of criminological analysis of offending and harm experienced online. While there is clearly a growing body of work exploring the extent and techniques of online crime, there remains relatively little empirical or theoretical insight into the nature and impact of such offending, including its impact on engagement in political movements.

The next section of the paper outlines our methodology. Then, analysis is presented of the nature of gendered abuse online, its impacts on recipients and the various responses developed. In the conclusion, we consider the extent to which existing knowledge of VAWG in real-world contexts can be applied to this emerging field. Feminist civic engagement is flourishing and of growing academic interest Dean and Aune ; Lewis and Marine Online activity has been ificant in the resurgence of feminist communities, debates and theories.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that women espousing feminist views are particularly targeted for abuse online. This cohort therefore provides a starting point for further research about online abuse, gendered and otherwise. We do not claim that their perspectives or experiences can be extrapolated more widely. However, given their interpretations and perspectives, those who engage in feminism online may offer useful insight into their experiences, given the centrality of VAWG in feminist politics. Finally, a particular aim of the research was to explore how those abused online respond to the abuse and whether this constitutes a form of activism.

To explore these matters, two data collection strategies were used: a survey and in-depth interviews. An online questionnaire conducted June—October contained multiple-choice and open questions about: the use of social media for feminist debate; the nature, frequency, duration and volume of abuse; forms of social media used to communicate abuse; the topics being discussed when abuse began; what made the communications feel abusive; whether any aspects of identity such as gender, sexuality, ethnicity, disability were targeted; how many perpetrators were involved and whether they were known to the respondent; whether the abuse was linked to offline experiences; the emotional and offline impacts; responses to the abuse; reporting behaviour and satisfaction with responses from others.

Data were gathered about a range of online abuse—harassment and sexual harassment, threats of physical and sexual violence, flaming and trolling, stalking, electronic sabotage, impersonation and defamation—and definitions, drawn from relevant contemporary research, were provided for each. The open questions generated fulsome responses, creating an extensive qualitative data set. This approach enabled snowball sampling, reducing the impact of initial selection bias and reaching a greater and range of participants.

To further reduce bias, we paid attention to the type of politics and topics supported by the individuals and organizations contacted; e. For several reasons, the research was not explicitly promoted to high-profile feminists, although, due to anonymity of respondents, we do not know whether such respondents did participate.

We were aware that some high-profile feminists are subjected to extreme levels of abuse which may not be typical. Many of these high-profile feminists are regularly trolled, and so we risked the questionnaire being sabotaged through trolling or cyberattacks. These concerns about security were central to deing the methodology; the questionnaire was hosted on SurveyMonkey which was deemed to provide sufficient data security and some protection against sabotage by preventing more than one response per IP address.

In total, valid responses were received. The characteristics of the final sample are outlined in Table 1. The second data collection strategy was a set of 17 in-depth interviews exploring emergent themes from the survey data, particularly responses to and impacts of abuse. Interview volunteers were recruited through the survey and further snowballing.

Their demographic characteristics are presented in Table 2. Interviews were conducted via Skype, telephone or in person, typically lasted about an hour, and were recorded and transcribed. Qualitative survey and interview data were analysed thematically, through collaborative processes of reading and rereading the data, discussing emerging themes and then coding the data. The study has benefitted from the exceptional richness of data provided by respondents. The quantitative analysis distinguishes between levels of online activity as a proxy measure for levels of engagement in online feminism.

As this was not a random sample, inferential statistics such as chi-square could not be used to generalize to the wider population, so bivariate relationships between variables are examined only to establish patterns within this sample. The following three sections present qualitative and quantitative data about the nature of the abuse, its impacts, and social and legal responses to it.

This le to a conclusion that considers the findings in terms of what is known about VAWG more generally. We argue that online abuse of feminists is best understood, analysed and theorized as a form of VAWG. In an effort to understand the context of online abuse, respondents were asked about their online activity. The most commonly used social media for feminist debate was Twitter 80 per cent of the sample , followed by Facebook 74 per cent of the sample and blogs 35 per cent. Other forms e.

Respondents experienced most abuse on Twitter; some respondents reporting that abuse started when they began to use Twitter. Eighty-eight per cent of those who use Twitter regularly for feminist debate had been abused on it, compared with 60 per cent of Facebook regular users, 46 per cent of blogs regular users and 29 per cent of news sites users. The greater frequency of abuse on Twitter might be due to the open access of this social media relative to others.

Given the popularity of Twitter, the specific aspects of this platform as a site for abusive communications are worthy of further consideration. The data show that there is no single pattern of experiences of online abuse. Rather, there is a continuum of online abuse ranging from concentrated, frequent, highly threatening and hateful to, at the other end of the spectrum, comparatively sporadic and less inflammatory, unpleasant, non-threatening messages.

To some extent, this reflects wider experiences of victimization, including VAWG Kelly and some forms of hate crime. These include extreme incidents but also routine low-level offending, which might have a ificant impact for the very reason that it becomes normalized and persistent Bowling ; Chakraborti and Garland Only 7 per cent of the sample reported that they experienced it less than once a year. Respondents were asked about ten types of abuse, using terms widely used online.

Figure 1 indicates that high users experience greater levels of abuse across all ten types. However, the difference in their experience was more marked in relation to some types physical threats, sexual harassment, incitement to abuse, sexual threats, stalking, electronic sabotage and impersonation than others flaming and trolling, harassment, and defamation. The current data set does not enable explanation of these differences in experiences of type and incidence of abuse, but they are worthy of further study.

At one end of the continuum, threats to rape and to kill were commonly reported. Three responses to the question inviting open text details of the most recent incident illustrate the more extreme forms of abuse:. I was told I deserved to die a painful death. Respondent 74 4. Respondent Not all experiences of abuse were so threatening. Examples of the other end of the continuum include:. Although these comments suggest some experiences are more mundane, this does not imply that they were experienced as less impactful or harmful. The experience of abuse is extremely subjective, making it difficult to create reliable scales of severity.

Media coverage of online abuse has highlighted the sexualized nature of much abuse of women. Our data show that 40 per cent of the sample experienced sexual harassment and 37 per cent experienced threats of sexual violence; high users were more likely to have experienced these see Figure 1.

These included rape threats, as further open text survey responses illustrate:. I was told to kill myself, I was threatened with rape, I was told I like cock, I was told I loved the taste of semen. I was Tweeting about EverydaySexism and received s from several men detailing how they were going to sexually abuse me to remind me who was in control in society. I was abused for discussing breast feeding in public! Told that I should never breed, that he should be able to wank off next to my kids and have sex next to me and my kids on a bus! Called disgusting and a disgrace to women. Some received images as well as written abuse; high users were more likely to receive these 33 per cent, compared to 24 per cent of moderate and 22 per cent of low users.

My image was photo-shopped on to various other images and posted to everyone in my uni class. Following my tweet about a feminist event, I received a tweet the next day, of three photographs from an unknown sender. Media coverage of this topic tends to focus on cases where recipients receive huge volumes of online abuse.

While most of our respondents had not experienced mass abuse, a minority reported very high volumes from a large of perpetrators 6 per cent reported there were 50 or perpetrators in their last incident :. This was immediately shared by GamerGate all over Twitter, Reddit, and various other sites.

Within a few hours it had over 25, views and abusive comments on Reddit not including the comments on Twitter. My picture, name, twitter handle, location, profession, were all shared. It took days before I could get moderators to remove my personal information that was shared across sites. I was threatened with rape, abuse, etc. I said something about women in science I am a chemist.

Although these high-volume attacks were often relatively short-lived, they could be sustained in a manner that makes them akin to harassment.

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