When Whistles Are Not Only on the Field: Reflections on Gender Cyberviolence

"Get back in the kitchen," "In the kitchen, at most, she'd cut a finger," "If only she had prepared Sunday gravy..." These are the types of comments appearing on social media regarding an incident involving a Spanish female soccer referee. During a match, she didn't notice a camera and injured her face by colliding with it. Such an injury could have happened to a male colleague. However, as we have learned in previous articles in this series, gender stereotypes like "soccer is for boys" and "household chores are for girls" develop from childhood and continue to be widespread in adulthood.

In the online context, it is crucial to understand why people feel legitimized to comment on posts in this manner and to question whether social media makes people more sexist and aggressive.

In this article, we explore some typical dynamics of social media that lead us to attribute digital technologies to the responsibility for promoting and spreading hate speech. For this reason, it is essential, especially concerning gender issues, to discuss "cyberviolence," a varied set of aggressive behaviors enacted through digital technologies.

It is now well known that digital technologies have facilitated the emergence of new behaviors (e.g., hate speech and revenge porn) and exacerbated traditional forms of discrimination and violence against women and gender and sexual minorities, such as cyberstalking and cyberbullying (European Institute for Gender Equality, 2022). To introduce the problem, let's look at some data.

A review of studies on major forms of online violence (e.g., digital dating abuse, revenge porn, sexting, online misogyny, and cyberbullying) has shown that most online victims are female, except for cyberbullying (de Araújo et al., 2022). Furthermore, a study conducted in Italy, based on Twitter data, analyzed 2,650,000 tweets over seven months, finding that 400,000 of these tweets contained insults. Of these, 60% were directed at women (Lingiardi et al., 2019). The World Health Organization estimates that one in three women has experienced online violence during her lifetime and one in ten before the age of 15; 5% of women had experienced online stalking. Seven out of ten women who are victims of online violence have also experienced at least one form of physical/sexual violence from a partner or ex-partner. Regarding the more invisible and insidious forms of cyberviolence, it seems that 71% of domestic violence perpetrators monitor their partner's computer and 54% track their cell phones with specialized software (Save the Children, 2020).

These data highlight the fundamental importance of discussing this issue from a gender perspective. But does social media fuel this situation? The answer, as often happens, is quite complex.

The digital world, and social media in particular, have characteristics that change how we interact with others. Some of the typical features of social media are indicated by the "Transformation Framework" proposed by Nesi and colleagues (2018) and directly influence the dynamics of cyberviolence:

- Absence of physical cues: Various forms of online violence are characterized by perpetration without physical contact and from anywhere in the world because the lack of non-verbal signals decreases the perception of the importance of social norms and fosters disinhibition.

- Permanence: Posts, comments, images, photos, and videos can multiply and remain online for a long time or forever, contributing to the spread of cyberviolence in society and potentially prolonging the negative psychological consequences for the victims indefinitely.

- Public dimension: The accessibility of violent content to a vast audience that can be reached with minimal effort.

- Asynchronicity: Communications on social media often do not occur in real-time, thus providing more time to write, read messages and prepare a response. As a result, the time interval between different stages of communication increases. you can be involved in multiple simultaneous interactions, and the deliberate choice of violent words can be even more painful.

These characteristics, along with many others such as anonymity, promote the online disinhibition effect (Suler, 2004). This effect is the tendency to act more disinhibited online compared to face-to-face interactions, leading to an increased perception of the legitimacy of hate comments and sexist language.

Overall, the characteristics of social media have transformed how we relate to others (Angelini et al., 2023) and intersect with individual characteristics (e.g., personality traits, psychological needs), which in turn are influenced by social aspects (e.g., social norms) and the broader context (e.g., societal culture).

From a psychological perspective, adopting the "Compensatory Internet Use Theory" model (Kardefelt-Winther, 2014), the basic "need" of those using social media to convey negative messages may be the result of a real cultural environment that tolerates behaviors aimed at gender-based violence. The "need" of those who comment negatively might be to find recognition and acceptance from other users who share the same point of view. If people feel legitimized to write insults or sexist comments, it might be because they know they could find recognition and validation in response to their "need." So, as we know, the cultural context in which we are placed can fuel the culture of possession and certain gender role stereotypes, linking online and offline interactions essential.

In conclusion, the scientific literature suggests that social media can exacerbate the uncontrolled manifestation of stereotypes and power imbalances present in society. Through attacks, verbal abuse, blackmail, and violence that often find shocking consensus and equally indignant dissent as in the case of the Spanish referee. This is especially true when people (characterized by some risk factors, which we will discuss in the next article) act online with little awareness of what they are doing and the related consequences. Therefore, we must focus on preventing dysfunctional online behaviors and promoting positive use of digital technologies. Interventions should target the entire population, starting from early childhood, to have enormous power in creating new positive social norms online that reduce the likelihood of engaging in violent behavior on social media. If offline life and online life can no longer be distinguished, awareness must increase that what happens in the virtual world is absolutely real (especially for the victims), and we should strive to spread kindness online towards everyone.  

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