Battling ’virtual violence’ against women

UCLA hosts screening of new documentary ’Backlash: Misogyny in the Digital Age’

Arts + Culture

UCLA hosts screening of new documentary ’Backlash: Misogyny in the Digital Age’

November 22, 2023

According to a 2022 report by the U.N., up to 58% of women and girls have experienced online and technology-facilitated violence, with that number expected to rapidly escalate as the internet grows ever more central to the daily life experience of billions.

To discuss both this devastating impact as well as potential ways forward, UCLA hosted a screening of the new documentary "Backlash: Misogyny in the Digital Age" Nov. 2 at the California NanoSystems Institute, sponsored by the UCLA College Division of Social Sciences, the UCLA School of Theater, Film & Television, the UCLA Barbra Streisand Center, the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry and the UCLA Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.

"Raise your hand if you have been a victim of online bullying, targeted abuse or have experienced unwanted aggression online at any point in your life," said Safiya Noble, the David O. Sears Presidential Endowed Chair of Social Sciences, in her panel introduction. "I, too, have been harassed online.

"You can imagine that, for many professors, this is increasingly a part of our everyday experiences, especially for those of us who work in gender or ethnic studies," she said. "But I feel heartened as the founder and director of the UCLA Center on Race and Digital Justice that we get up every day and work to enact and advance digital human and civil rights research and policy at UCLA."

"Backlash" tells the real-life stories of five people whose lives were forever changed by online harassment, including Italian politician Laura Boldrini, French YouTuber Marion Séclin, Canadian teacher Laurence Gratton, American politician Kiah Morris and Canadian activist Glen Canning, whose teenage daughter Rehtaeh Parsons killed herself after photos of her rape were digitally shared.

Moderated by Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, professor of documentary film in the UCLA Department of Film, Television and Digital Media, the panel discussion included Guylaine Maroist, who co-wrote and co-directed the documentary with Léa Clermont-Dion; Morris, the former Vermont state representative who ultimately left office after being subjected to years of extreme racist and sexist online attacks; and Sarah T. Roberts, faculty director of the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, who appears in the film as an expert.

"There’s a whole human component to this that I want to highlight and honor. I think it was very, very brave that Guylaine and Léa chose to try to highlight these voices, trying to honor the best way to show what the complexities of this are in the lived body," Morris said. "When I stepped down, when folks realized that the most powerful woman of color in the state of Vermont had to leave her seat, they said, ’I’m not safe either.’"

Describing how this phenomenon is a vicious circle, Roberts explained how the unprecedented volume of online vitriol - most of it anonymous - inevitably overwhelms the small number of overworked social media content moderators, many of whom perform this labor as outsourced workers. The tenor of these attacks not only echoes hate speech that goes back centuries, but also the coarsened current public discourse.

"That’s like every holiday wrapped up into one for a harasser, right? The conditions on these platforms are there, ripe for this kind of activity to happen - and there’s a financial incentive too, of course: Keep people mad, keep ’ em fighting... and that’s how Meta gets to $777 billion of market cap," Roberts said. "Labor, structural racism, structural misogyny, historical traces of imperialism and colonialism - these things are all at play. But you know who’s getting off scot-free? The companies just up the road from us in Silicon Valley who get to take all of the reward and pretty much none of the responsibility."

Also crucial to the issue, the panelists agreed, is that far too many people just accept the hostile online environment as the price of being online and even become inured to it from a young age in video games and chat rooms, where the line between digital and true humanity may become forever blurred to the detriment of all.

"Unfortunately, in the seven years we worked on this film, we saw the phenomenon grow. Now, Andrew Tate and a lot of influencers who are misogynistic have billions of views," Maroist said. "We’ve brought this film to numerous schools, and I speak with kids and I see them agreeing with this content."

Just as pernicious, she said, is the fact that the threat of online harassment - or worse - is actively influencing women not to go into politics or public life. But rather than despair or abandon these virtual spaces as lost causes, the solution for everyone, Maroist said, is facing the complicated problem head-on.

"Yes, the social media giants have to be held accountable for what’s going on their platforms. The people who threaten women also have to be held accountable. All of the judiciary system, from the police officer who receives the complaint to the judges who decide the cases, have to be made aware," she said. "We really have to act now; we have to find solutions, we have to not lose hope."