In May 2012, just before the anniversary of the ruling of the Constitutional Court that legalized abortion in Colombia in 2006, I was working as a communications officer in the offices of the NGO Women’s Link Worldwide in Bogotá. Its program director, Monica Roa, had filed the 2006 Constitutional Claim that led to the court’s ruling. Roa and another co-worker were working late at the office that night, preparing for an upcoming meeting of activists. Suddenly the building went dark and they heard two shots. Roa felt pieces of glass bouncing on her hair. An unknown car drove away, its tires screeching against the pavement.
Part of my job at the time was to monitor social media. In the days before the incident, online misogynistic abuse had been more aggressive than usual. Most of the trolling directed at us on social networks appeared to be coming from social conservatives. For example, a Twitter account, self-described as part of the extreme right, had created a meme of Roa dressed “as Hitler.” One of their leaders is currently Columbia’s “Procurador,” the Inspector General who has openly used his office to restrict women’s rights. Highly active right-wing extremists not only focused on social rights, but were a militarist right wing that loudly sympathized with powerful paramilitary groups.
The police never identified who was responsible for the gunshots that night, though it was clear that intimidation was the goal. Most countries in Latin America face some social crisis related to public safety threatened by organized crime groups, street gangs, criminal groups engaged in political revenge, and even social cleansing, like that conducted by paramilitary in Colombia. Democratic processes and the struggles for human rights have failed to be reflected in security. This situation is illustrated persistently on the Internet. Any threat of sexual violence or kidnapping is very intimidating, because we know that if something happens in the streets no one will help.
Any threat of sexual violence or kidnapping is very intimidating, because we know that if something happens in the streets no one will help.
While online misogyny is a universal problem, it affects us differently due to local particularities. In every country in the world, feminists, especially those working with sexual and reproductive rights, are persecuted and harassed online. But in Latin America, online misogyny intersects with the specific conditions of violence of each country. It is often difficult to differentiate between a random troll from one that is part of an armed repressive group, which change from country to country. Even trolls categorized as angry, lonely teenagers can easily engage with criminal groups that will materialize their violent intentions or use an online misogynistic environment to maximize a general sensation of fear.
In a recent case in Mexico, harassers targeted a woman who was publicly defending her 4-year-old’s right to go to school and keep his hair long. The school’s rules require boys to wear short hair. Nevertheless, after she supported his decision not to comply, he was suspended from school. The case moved online and she was mercilessly harassed and threatened. Upon discovering and revealing that she is a single mother and a lesbian, strangers claimed they would “rescue the child” to “defend his right to be a macho.” His mother and those who wrote about the case were sent photos of weapons with pieces of paper that had their names written on them. Many people said on social media that if the boy did not follow the school rules he would end up like one of the 43 students forcefully disappeared last year. This is not as ludicrous as it sounds; it is, in fact, very real. The message sent with the forced disappearance of Ayotzinapa students was clear and distinct: Obey or else, a reminder that was repeated over and over again in social media.
Threats like these, as well as threats of “corrective rape,” are increasingly evident in Latin American social media space, particularly leveled against women writers and journalists who advocate for feminist and gender rights. Although it is difficult to believe that anyone would be capable of fulfilling these threats, given the very high rates of violence against women and impunity in Latin American countries, it is almost necessary to take them seriously. Depending on their location, context, and the specific vulnerabilities of each blogger or journalist, these threats often compel women to withdraw from online spaces and, more seriously, to withdraw from offline public spaces, since they become afraid to leave their homes.
Threats like these, as well as threats of “corrective rape,” are increasingly evident in Latin American social media space, particularly leveled against women writers and journalists who advocate for feminist and gender rights.
Saying something akin to “Die, lesbian bitch, you demon spawn” to women online is common and normalized. Threats of rape or murder are threats and shouldn’t be protected by the right to free speech. There is no way of knowing which of these threats are simply verbal expressions or real and specific intentions to rape or kill. We have no effective mechanisms of assessment. Judging by images of weapons or rape, the least we can assume is that they have the intention and the means to do so. However, even if we never meet physically, the feeling of insecurity and anxiety caused in the woman is sufficient to make her think twice before saying something on the Internet.
It is important to have a holistic approach to the problem. Today, legal and criminal mechanisms are insufficient to the task and cultural norms exacerbate, rather than alleviate, harm. Cyber attacks are not taken seriously by society or law enforcement. It is ridiculous to believe that a threat of murder or corrective rape is resolved by telling a woman, “Ignore them. People are very crazy,” and yet this is often the reaction of the police and judges. The main problem with online violence is that our countries are very preoccupied with what is framed as “real” violence, and it is even harder for our systems to understand how valid, effective, and damaging online violence is.
We can only use the incredible potential of the Internet to defend our rights effectively if together we build a space where people can demand their fundamental rights without being persecuted. And for this we have to realize that the persecutors are not abstractions. They are very real people with a very real violence that unleashes at the slightest provocation. Online and offline, we need education, sensibility, and debate. Most of all, we have to stop denying this is a problem. We have to find a way to deal with all this rage.
Copyright Women’s Media Center, 2016. For reprint, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.