In this installment of her column, ‘Elephant in the Room’, Dr Milayo Ndou shares her experience as a victim of gender-based trolling on social media, and provokes new thinking on the role we play as online ‘bystanders’ when such abuse happens
Sometime in October of 2020, I declined an invitation extended by Plan International to be on a TV show to speak about my experiences of being online and the importance of #FreeToBeOnline.
The invitation coincided with a period where I had erased much of my digital identity and presence, as a means of self-care. I didn’t feel like the ideal ambassador for a public-facing #FreeToBeOnline campaign at a time when I was taking several measures to avoid being subjected to online abuse. My experiences online negated the idea that being online was safe or liberating. A series of adverse interactions, over a prolonged period of time, had eventually led to my complete absence, as I chose to withdraw from online interactions.
Even though I can hold my own on any issue I feel strongly about, even though I have a thick skin, and even if I can fight fire with fire and give as good as I get – one does eventually get burnt out and emotionally fatigued. From 2016 to date, I have deleted my Twitter account thrice, ignored Facebook for periods of up to 10 months, and have restricted access to my blog by setting it on ‘private’ for over 5 years. In short, I disappeared online.
To limit the harm that could be visited on me online, I adopted various forms of self-censorship and self-restriction which have had the cumulative effect of constraining my freedom of expression. In general, highly visible women are no strangers to falling off the digital grid, resorting to self-erasure, or suspending their digital identities and presence from time to time to gain some reprieve from relentless online harassment.
Karla Mantilla argues that gendertrolling (which is a form of online gender-based violence) arises out of the same misogyny that fuels other ‘real life’ forms of harassment and abuse of women – it is a continuation of the abuse of women in other areas of life, carried over to online spaces. What distinguishes gendertrolling from generic trolling is how it functions to silence women’s voices online by attaching professional costs/consequences to the targeting of women.
For this article, I opted to draw upon some of my experiences so that I do not mine the trauma of other women in a bid to make my case. Over the span of a year from July 2016 to July 2017, I was the target of coordinated gendertrolling by two Twitter accounts (@Trends_SADC and @Trends_Zim), that harassed and maliciously slandered me with the aim of silencing me and trashing my professional standing.
Here is some context. On 18 November 2016, I tendered my resignation at Zimpapers. I had been headhunted for a digital managerial role elsewhere but after six brief months, I had quit that job as well and relocated to Cape Town to focus on my PhD full-time.
In July of 2017, roughly eight months after I tendered my resignation from Zimpapers, and about a month after I relocated to Cape Town, a close friend WhatsApped me a screenshot of a tweet in which I was being slandered and gendertrolled.
I had been offline for several weeks, so the attack was completely unprovoked and, for me, it served to prove Audre Lorde’s point that ‘your silence will not protect you’. In this case, suspending my digital presence did not protect me.
Examples abound of women who don’t have an online presence but become targets of online gender-based violence, including gendertrolling.
In my case, being offline and unemployed did not insulate me from gendertrolls who still figured that I had a career they could jeopardise through gendered disinformation.
To be clear: gendertrolling is a form of gendered disinformation which makes use of sexual or misogynistic narratives against women and the goal of these campaigns is to question their credibility, polarize their audience, and push them away from positions of power.
They say truth is an absolute defence to defamation (which is a false statement of fact). It is false that I had to sleep with anyone to get hired at Zimpapers (or anywhere I have ever worked for that matter). The fact is I was headhunted to rejoin Zimpapers as Social Media Editor within its newly formed digital team.
At the time, taking on a social media role in Zimbabwe (after working internationally, managing social media and online platforms for one of the world’s biggest publishers in the United Kingdom, i.e., SAGE Publications) wasn’t a big deal. It would never warrant me sleeping with anyone – no job ever will.
It is also false that I was ever an employee of The Herald publication, I had actually worked for the Sunday News publication, before a brief stint in civil society. I had also never been a member of the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), but had been placed under scrutiny by supposed CIOs at various junctures in my career including when I blogged about the Gukurahundi genocide and when I co-authored a book of testimonials about electoral irregularities in the 2013 harmonised elections.
The entirety of that tweet was false information, but it was the kind of false information that made use of sexual or misogynistic narratives against women like insinuating that women only achieve professional success through sexual favours.
Basically, the tweet was intended to mislead people as disinformation always does. It sought to mislead people into believing that I didn’t deserve the position I had held, although I was arguably overqualified. It sought to mislead people into believing I was a member of the ruthless CIO, although I had been frightfully surveilled by that same notorious entity.
Whether highly visible women choose to be online or remain offline, they will not escape online abuse and certainly not be spared from gendered disinformation, which is the spreading of false information about women – especially those in positions of power and visibility – often peddling lies about their sex lives in ways that are extremely injurious because of how hard they are to disprove.
Although I did not respond when I was slandered in July of 2017, I was truly gratified that many others chose to do so. It is part of the reason why I applied for a grant to do a project on bystander responses in the context of online gender-based violence on Zimbabwean Twitter.
In 2018, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) provided some idea on the bystander responses on Zimbabwean cyberspace. Between January 1, 2013, and April 19, 2018, the study identified and sampled 332,272 violence against women-related online posts and found that only 6.9% were active bystanders who posted or shared positive engagement against violence (expressions of support, pushback against violent content, etc.).
The majority, 52%, did not intervene but opted to be passive bystanders, meaning they either ignored the incidents of violence against women or used the incidents to engage in neutral engagement (e.g., tagging others, taking screenshots to discuss the abusive posts as part of idle chitchat) which amplified the impacts.
The role of bystanders (people who witness/observe assaultive behaviours) is important because studies have shown how online violence is different from offline violence due to the tendency of the content to endure online, where it can resurface and further re-victimise women who have been targeted.
There is no real reprieve from the impact of online gender-based violence and no expiration date to the damage that social media slander can do to one’s reputation. I never thanked the active bystanders who shielded me and wish to take this opportunity to do so.
It took many active bystanders that chose to intervene and ratio’d the slanderous tweet to mitigate the damage. Getting ratio’d refers to a situation where a tweet gets more replies than likes which usually indicates its unpopularity and how it has provoked people to leave replies objecting and demonstrating that they consider the tweet’s content to be bad. In the case of the above tweet, 53 bystanders pushed back. Here are some of their responses:
I hope this article has provoked some thoughts around bystander responses. If it has, please consider taking part in the bystander survey for the online gender-based violence project (for Zimbabweans only), here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/PM8RT8G.
Milayo Ndou is a feminist thinker and media scholar pursuing policy-relevant, activist research on Online Gender-Based Violence (OGBV) funded by Mozilla. She has a keen interest in mitigating the impact of gendered disinformation through bystander interventions on Zimbabwean Twitter. Twitter handle: @MilayoNdou
Read more previous installments of her column, ‘Elephant in the Room’, here: