“Social media companies have a massive responsibility in all of this,”: How Ireland plans to stop online female-targeted sexism in new legislation

Trudy Feenane

Social media platforms will be held accountable for their role in the spread of antifeminist and sexist material online for the first time under new national legislation. 

The Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill, which was published by the government in January 2020, proposes an Online Safety Commissioner as part of a wider Media Commission to impose strict online safety codes to “tackle the availability of harmful content”.

Dr Debbie Ging, an Associate Professor in the School of Communications at Dublin City University, is one such academic that will be informing the proposals for the bill on harmful misogynistic content, which is content that holds a strong prejudice against women.

“Making social media platforms answerable to national laws will be key in terms of curbing the spread of digital hate and harm, [my submission] is envisaged as a key responsibility of the Online Safety Commissioner,” Dr Ging said.

The submission, which is led by the Institute for Future Media, Democracy and Society (FuJo) and the National Anti-Bullying Centre, both of which Dr Ging is a member of, will inform the practices to be observed by online platforms to ensure harmful misogynistic content is prohibited. 

Misogynistic abuse is defined as “harmful communications” under the recently passed Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act 2020; an important advancement, according to Dr Ging. 

Dr Ging’s submission is led by her current research which is concerned with articulations of gender on social media. She focuses particularly on online misogyny, antifeminism and men’s rights activists. These interest groups associate themselves with an umbrella term known as the manosphere. 

In her journal article, Alphas, Betas, and Incels: Theorizing the Masculinities of the Manosphere – which belongs to a wider journal of works called Men and Masculinities which Dr Ging acts as the Irish editor for – she explains how this online phenomenon is notable for its extreme misogyny. 

She also notes how social media platforms have a huge responsibility in aiding the establishment and interconnectedness of these organisations on blogs, forums and online communities.

Their discursive tone and modus operandi has changed substantially since: “Their whole interest shifted over this transition from pre-internet to internet to Web 2.0, from a kind of collective politics where they would be signing petitions and the focus was all about divorce, custody and family structures.

“When it shifted onto the internet the whole discourse completely changed, it became so individualised.. It became very personalised and vicious,” Dr Ging said.

Why have the defining factors of men’s rights activism changed since the establishment of social media?

Dr Ging attributes a lot of the reasons for this to the technological affordances of social media. The speed, anonymity, algorithm, hyperlinking and echo chamber functions have given these groups systematic tools to recruit others members and to collude with alt-right ideologies.

This creates an “outsized presence” which is unreflective of the actual size of the community, as she explains in her journal article:

“Echo chambers are formed which are technologically facilitated and are particularly conducive to these communities because they often feel hated or disaffected by the outside world..Then you have algorithms which are deliberately amplifying certain ideas.

“There’s a sense of superiority and technology facilitates that. Social media companies have a massive responsibility in all of this, massive.”

The legislative bill states that it will set Ireland apart as one of the first countries to disable the self-regulated system that social media platforms have become synonymous with. By enforcing compliance measures and sanction powers, online platforms will be penalised for non-compliance through financial sanctions or the blocking of access to their site in Ireland. 

Dr Ging believes this bill is a step in the right direction in immobilising the perpetuation of harmful misogynistic content. A particularly promising aspect of this bill is its indication to promote educational initiatives and public information campaigns in a bid to educate the public on matters relating to online safety. 

“Cyber safety education needs to take more account of the specific forms that digital abuse takes such as misogyny, racism, transphobia and homophobia,” Dr Ging said. 

The unpoliced nature of misogynistic material online to date has allowed their mode of thought and associated terminology to become mainstream.

What once existed in niche pockets of online forums like Reddit and 4chan is now available for “your average 15-year-old to start engulfing” Dr Ging said, adding: “It seems to me that social media companies are more powerful than our government. The tech oligarchs really see themselves as the new world order leaders, way above the power and remits of national government.”

This became especially relevant in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential election, where antifeminism groups were propelled into the mainstream alongside anonymous bot accounts posting harmful material.

While social media regulators had the power to police these accounts and ban them, they made little effort to do so, Dr Ging said.

With national legislation due to be enforced to make these platforms answerable for their role in the spread of misogynistic content, a new era of accountability begins, with Ireland to the forefront of the process.

Trudy Feenane

Image Credit: Sergey Zolkin on Unsplash