Foto: Unsplash/Mingwei Lim

Gender-based cyberviolence, a threat to democracy

3 min read

Far from being "a tool for liberation and democracy", social media have been revealing more and more their darker side, being the preferred vehicle to the spread of gendered disinformation as well as to the expression of anti-democratic claims. This is particularly true in Italy, as shown by a recent report on online violence against women in politics (Armi di Reazione e Odio - Disinformazione di Genere, Misoginia e Abusi Online Contro le Donne in Politica in Italia), according to which a direct correlation exists between hate speech against women and attempts to undermine democracy and civil rights. The report has been published as part of the global research Monetizing Misogyny conducted by #ShePersisted, a transnational initiative established to tackle gendered disinformation and cyberviolence against women in politics.

The case study on Italy has been carried out by Lucina Di Meco, gender equality expert and co-founder of #ShePersisted, recognized by Apolitical as one of the 100 Most Influential People in Gender Policy for her work on gendered disinformation, and Nicoletta Apolito, media analyst and digital communication expert for the Centre for Intercultural Studies at the University of Verona.
The report is based on data collected from the main social media platforms (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) within a three-month time span, from January to March 2022. Experts on media and women’s rights have been involved, together with some major Italian women politicians such as Alessandra MorettiLaura BoldriniMaria Elena BoschiMonica Cirinnà, and Valeria Fedeli, who have all been victims of online hate speech and gendered disinformation in recent years.
Their testimonies clearly demonstrate that there are many ways through which online violence against women can be expressed, ranging from misogynist and sexist insults to attacks aimed at showing women’s inadequacy as public figures and the spread of fake images and fake news, often related to their sexual behaviour. According to Italian Member of Parliament Maria Elena Boschi, this kind of violence 
«risks erecting a wall for the youngest and leads to a distance from politics».

The most interesting and, at the same time, worrying element about the Italian study is that some of the most active social media accounts responsible for the circulation of hate speech against women coincide with those spreading disinformation about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These would also align with anti-democratic ideas on civil rights such as divorce or legal abortion. 

The report also highlights the inefficacy of some of the legal measures adopted in Italy in order to address the issue during the past years: the implementation of a law against online violence can no longer be postponed, says former Senator and Minister of Education Valeria Fedeli.

On the other hand, Italian politician and Senator Monica Cirinnà underlines that there has recently been an increase in the expression of public solidarity towards women who had been victims of cyberviolence. This, paired with the fact that the victims themselves have become more and more prone to reporting abuses, can be regarded as a positive improvement.

All in all, Italy’s case as described by Di Meco and Apolito in their report should rightly be considered as a warning, with regards to the threat that the absence of adequate attention, control and consequent measures on online hate speech against women represent to our democracies. 

Read the full report