In September 2021, leaked internal research from Facebook, which makes more than $100 billion a year, showed that the company is aware of the damaging effect of its Instagram app on the mental health of teenage girls. In the face of these immense public harms and obscene profits, what demands should we be making for feminist digital justice? What are we asking for? Do we want a cut of these profits – Wages for Facebook? Or do we want the right to participate and be recognized in a digital public sphere, free from the fear of harassment and harm?
This article shows that we need both, and proposes a view of gender justice which demands both economic redistribution and political recognition. This means understanding gender both as a category of class-like differentiation which generates economic injustice, and as a form of status subordination, which results in a range of injustices of misrecognition including marginalization and demeaning treatment in public life. One of the most powerful contemporary forms of this status subordination is online misogyny, which can be seen as a form of women being denied access to the technological means of production; our labor is robbed and denied because we lack safe access to digital spaces.
Economic injustice is hardwired into the material infrastructure of the internet; as studies reveal the underpaid female and migrant labor used to manufacture computer hardware on which the internet runs. Beyond the hardware, stark economic gender digital divides persist across all levels of the value chains of the digital economy; from the low levels of female leadership in the Silicon Valley executive class to the disparity in financial satisfaction between the benefits men women derive from platform work which was recently revealed in research by Restofworld on the global gig economy. Their survey found that platform work is heavily gendered and largely replicates offline structures. Despite being sold as being convenient for working around women’s caregiving responsibilities, the research shows how the algorithms which drive the platforms punish women for their ‘time poverty’ and lack of availability.
Backlash Against Gender Justice: Online and Offline
The calls for new forms of gender justice are made more urgent by the fact that we are at a moment of profound ecological, economic, political, and societal crises in the international order; one manifestation of which is a global patriarchal backlash against women’s rights. While the technological ease and accessibility of digital activism has meant that feminists can occupy and construct spaces online which operate as ‘counterpublics’, these spaces have also created new vulnerabilities and lines of attack for their opponents. My colleagues in the SIDA-funded ‘Countering Backlash’ program, Iffat Jahan Antara and Mehid Hasan from the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), have written about how this manifests in Bangladesh. People writing about gender equality, sexual harassment, or sex education online face death threats manifests from extremist groups and individuals. But the backlash also manifests in action by the state using instruments such as the Digital Security Act (DSA) 2018, which is used to suppress freedom of speech rather than being deployed to challenge online gender-based violence.
The backlash against women’s rights has also seen the explosion of online spaces in which a discourse is cultivated that feminism has gone too far and that men are now experiencing reverse discrimination. Online, participants can be part of a community with oppositional consciousness which does not require them to buy into an ideology wholesale, but instead allows them to choose aspects that resonate with their lives. They share a central belief that feminine values dominate society, a fact suppressed by feminists and “political correctness”, and that men must fight back against an overreaching, misandrist culture to protect their very existence. This discourse spreads beyond online spaces; while these extreme personal and political identities are cultivated in digital spaces, they then translate into real-life violence. Jessica Johnson’s study of #pizzagate looks at the emotive circulation of information which led a 28-year old white man from North Carolina named Edgar Maddison Welch to fire a gun in the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, D.C., in pursuit of an imaginary worldwide child sex trafficking ring with ties to Hillary Clinton. She shows how he was driven by the way that Facebook is engineered to provide addictive, affective pleasure to its subjects by connecting and sharing information, regardless of whether it is true or not. Beyond this tragic incident, adherents of ‘incel’ (involuntary celibate) far-right philosophies have been involved in a number of deadly incidents in the United States and Canada.
The affordances of digital platforms mean that discourses are spread rapidly and haphazardly; not only outside the control of gatekeepers who might have previously controlled messaging and information flows but also constrained by the architecture of digital platforms whose governance and decision making is opaque and unaccountable.
The affordances of digital platforms mean that discourses are spread rapidly and haphazardly; not only outside the control of gatekeepers who might have previously controlled messaging and information flows but also constrained by the architecture of digital platforms whose governance and decision making is opaque and unaccountable. This is an issue of global concern, as reflected in the various UN resolutions recognizing online Gender-Based Violence (GBV) in the international human rights framework on women’s rights and violence against women. The Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Dubravka Šimonović drew attention to the intersectional nature of this violence, which places women from ethnic minorities, disabled women, and LGBTQ+ people even more at risk.
The Chilling Effects of Online GBV
Research cited by the UN found that 23% of women have reported having experienced online abuse or harassment at least once in their life and that one in 10 women has experienced some form of online violence from the age of 15. Pollicy interviewed women in Ethiopia, Kenya, Senegal, Uganda, and South Africa, 28% of whom reported having experienced some form of online violence. IT for Change’s research with young women in India found that over one-third of their survey respondents had faced harassment, abuse, or unwanted behavior online. Social media has been a particularly potent environment for attempts to silence and perpetrate violence against women in the political public sphere, such as parliamentarians. Research just published by WOUGNET on online GBV in Uganda showed that most victims suffered depression, anxiety, and fear while others isolated themselves and withdrew from public life.
Hate online can inspire violence offline, which feeds a slow undercurrent of misogyny that threatens to corrode decades of progress made on women’s rights and equality.
Online harassment contributes to a culture in which violence is seen as normal and inevitable, and, thus, more easily perpetrated and tolerated, both online and offline. Hate online can inspire violence offline, which feeds a slow undercurrent of misogyny that threatens to corrode decades of progress made on women’s rights and equality. This also extends to the distribution of non-consensual intimate imagery (often incorrectly termed “revenge porn”). In her study of this issue in Trinidad and Tobago, Sue-Ann Barratt describes how this manifests as a form of ‘symbolic violence’ which “operates as constant backlash to feminist activism and scholarship for gender justice”. The severity of online harassment has been globally recognized, and advocacy efforts from grassroots education to legal attempts have tried to hold platforms accountable. However, these violations of women’s rights to digital public participation due to online violence have increased during the Covid-19 pandemic. Threats to women’s safety online deny them full participation in the digital public sphere; an injustice of misrecognition which is described by Nancy Fraser as a gender-specific form of status subordination which can only be remedied by ‘parity of participation’, allowing adult members of society to interact with each other as peers.
Economic Injustice and the Neoliberal Logic of the Attention Economy
The “Mulheres Unidas Contra Bolsonaro” (Women United Against Bolsonaro, MUCB) mobilization against Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro during his campaign for office in 2018 grew exponentially in the digital public sphere; with their Facebook group reaching one million members in two weeks and resulted in the largest women-led demonstrations in Brazilian history. But these achievements came at a cost; the group was hacked repeatedly with attackers threatening to expose administrators’ personal data. Writing about this campaign, researchers Luisa Cruz Lobato and Cristiana Gonzales show us how women are placed at severe physical risk by this constant leakage of data and the porosity of the barriers between our physical and digital selves. They argue that this means we must think about our bodies as generating new data which is “going into the unknown paths of digital economy”. The failure of legal systems to adequately deal with online GBV should therefore be seen as a form of economic injustice. When we are denied a voice online, when we self-censor or remove ourselves from platforms to protect ourselves, we are also, in many cases, removing ourselves from our virtual workplaces.
The failure of legal systems to adequately deal with online GBV should be seen as a form of economic injustice.
Since the start of the pandemic, more and more of us have been working from home, and these virtual workplaces are increasingly a site of harassment. A study by Glitch UK and the End Violence Against Women Coalition of women and non-binary peoples’ experiences of working online during the pandemic in 2020 showed that 46% of respondents reported experiencing online abuse since the beginning of Covid-19. This figure increased to 50% for Black and minoritized women and non-binary people. Yet only 9% of respondents received updated training from their employer on how to stay safe online while working from home, and those people who did try to raise complaints were not taken seriously by law enforcement. The report recommends that employers should increase their efforts to prevent online abuse in the workplace and that they should conduct a robust risk assessment in relation to online abuse and harassment at work and take measures to prevent these threats.
Digital spaces are not only arenas for our social and political lives but are vital for commerce, professional engagement, job seeking, and distribution of our creative outputs. When we are denied access to these spaces, we are arguably victims of workplace harassment and economic vandalism.
Digital spaces are not only arenas for our social and political lives but are vital for commerce, professional engagement, job seeking, and distribution of our creative outputs. When we are denied access to these spaces, we are arguably victims of what the Australian feminist Emma Jane describes as “workplace harassment and economic vandalism”. Her research explores case studies of women in a range of professions including librarians, journalists, therapists, and online retailers; all of whom were victims of online harassment including violent threats and publication of work details on a doxxing forum. Yet, for these women, social media platforms such as Twitter or Instagram are their workplaces or vital spaces for advertising and marketing, so they cannot simply withdraw from them. When victims of non-consensual intimate image sharing try to remove photos that are distributed online without their consent, they are impeded by the value chains and economic incentives for shaming websites, which profit from these images. The complexity of these profit motives and architectures of accountability underpinning the digital economy makes it crucial that we understand platforms as entangled with our bodies and systems of social relations, which are reproduced and reflected in institutions and legal arrangements.
Labor and Value in the Digital Economy
If we are to address online harms, we need to recognize the neoliberal logic underpinning the ‘attention economy’. In recent years, feminists have been asking us to look with fresh eyes at issues of labor and value in the digital economy; understanding both the value of the unpaid work we carry out in producing and consuming content online and how our data is the cornerstone of surplus-value generation for digital media companies. In doing this, feminists draw on the long histories of Marxist feminist work. Women such as Silvia Federici and Selma James identify the recognition and remuneration of the unpaid work of social reproduction – the immaterial or cultural care-work which women undertake – as key to the achievement of gender justice. Feminists have re-envisioned this work of social reproduction for the digital era to help us understand the new forms of ‘digital housework’ which underpin the effective functioning of platform publics. These include a range of cognitive and affective labor tasks from maintaining Wikipedia pages to commenting on a friend’s Instagram post. Lisa Nakamura has shown how the unpaid and dangerous labor of responding to racist or misogynist posts online is carried out by women of color, queer and trans people, and racial minorities, and contributes to platforms’ enormous profits.
Beyond this conception of unpaid ‘feminized’ digital labor, women experience inequalities at all points of digital value chains. Women in the Global South face a multi-staged digital divide in which each aspect reinforces the other. At an individual level, there are persistent gender gaps in technology access and adoption; recent work on the gender digital divide and COVID-19 in Southern Africa by Tina Power and in Tanzania by Carol Ndosi share frustrations at the lack of gender-disaggregated data which creates barriers to addressing these divides. Beyond the individual experience of digital exclusion, women-owned firms have lower levels of technology adoption and women in developing countries are at greater risks of having their jobs automated out of existence than men. Overall, this leads to a situation where women reap lower economic dividends from the use of technologies than men. These lower dividends result from persistent gaps both in access to and use of technologies, and in employment in the ICT sector, which have a range of economic impacts.
Brands tap into issues concerning commercialized notions of feminism, equality and Black social justice activism, as part of marketing that primarily upholds the neoliberal idea that achievement and social change requires individual ambition and consumption.
Two-dimensional approaches to gender injustice, which encompass both economic redistribution and recognition of women’s right to representation in the public sphere, evolved in part, as a response by Nancy Fraser to concerns that feminist identity politics were dovetailing too comfortably with ‘hegemonic neoliberalism’. In her study of ‘woke-washing’ Francesca Sobande shows how this hegemonic neoliberalism plays out in digital spaces. She shows how “brands tap into issues concerning commercialized notions of feminism, equality and Black social justice activism, as part of marketing that primarily upholds the neoliberal idea that achievement and social change requires individual ambition and consumption”. Sobande uses the case study of Nike’s Until We All Win (2018) advertisements starring tennis player Serena Williams, which ostensibly tackle issues of race and gender with positive messaging about connections between women and “Black excellence”. However, she concludes that this is all ultimately marketing spin without any real commitment by brands to tackling social injustice, which would require a radical reworking of companies’ labor and production practices and business models.
Kylie Jarrett asks us to look at the economic logic of social reproduction to “identify points of struggle most relevant to the precarious conditions of Big Data capitalism”. These points of struggle and resistance are seen across the value chains of digital businesses; from a surge in platform worker protests around the world to walkouts at Google in protest at the $90m payout given to an executive accused of sexual misconduct, or the email written by Google employee Timnit Gebru, a leading expert on the ethics of artificial intelligence, complaining about the fact that “your life gets worse when you start advocating for underrepresented people”, which resulted in her losing her job.
Demanding Feminist Digital Justice
When we make dual demands for feminist digital justice, we must recognize and understand that our claims for recognition, to be seen and heard online, are imbricated with our claims for material redistribution. How do we walk the tightrope of demanding recognition online, and for safe digital spaces to mobilize, socialize, and work without falling for hegemonic neoliberal feminist identity politics? We need to face the grim reality that the platforms – which are sites of abuse and violence, particularly for the most marginalized women in our societies – profit from this abuse with every click, due to their business models.
We cannot trust platforms to regulate themselves and we must work towards developing a new global normative benchmarking exercise to regulate platforms and decolonize network infrastructures based on new economic models.
We must acknowledge that the broader digital economy is systematically structured to disadvantage women; from digital trade and e-commerce negotiations to the decision-making processes of internet governance. Recent years have shown us that we cannot trust platforms to regulate themselves and we must work towards developing a new global normative benchmarking exercise to regulate platforms and decolonize network infrastructures based on new economic models.
These theoretical underpinnings can strengthen our claims both for distributive, economic justice in a platformized, data-driven economy, and our rights for recognition and representation in the digital public sphere. I hope this will lead us, at this moment of systemic, multidimensional crisis, to fresh energy for new conceptions of feminist digital justice, combining, in the words of Nancy Fraser “a politics of redistribution with a politics of recognition”.
This is the first piece from our special issue on Feminist Re-imagining of Platform Planet.