Can certain social media platforms be more toxic for women?

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Pretty little lies…

Type the words ‘negative effects’ into Google and the first predicted result is about our permanent digital sidekick, social media.

With issues ranging from anxiety and self-esteem to depression and disrupted sleep, it’s been difficult for any solid research to keep up with the rate of change across platforms to determine whether any real damage is being done, or whether the benefits balance out the bad bits.

Only time will tell whether we’ll end up becoming a nation of sleep-deprived scrollers, however, one prominent finding from the current research is that the negative effects of social media can be amplified by different personality types/traits. This makes a lot of sense, but it begs the question, can the experience of social media be dramatically different by gender? Specifically, can certain platforms be worse for women?

Given that Facebook was invented as a way for Mark Zuckerberg and his pals to rate the attractiveness of single girls at their university, it’s safe to say that it was problematic for women from the start. So, if the origin of Facebook lies firmly in the misogyny camp, it would be easy to believe that things haven’t got much better. But recent reports have suggested that Facebook could be heading the way of its elderly networking ancestors, Bebo and MySpace and becoming somewhat ‘old news’, losing 2.8 million users under 25 last year. Instead, we’ll look at Twitter and Instagram.

On the surface, they are very different beasts. One is about words, the other focuses on pictures. But could both be creating dangerous virtual spaces for women? And if so, why?

Amnesty International says yes. They have conducted extensive research into the level of violence women experience on Twitter and the findings are damning, if not surprising.

Twitter’s failure to adequately respect human rights and effectively tackle violence and abuse on the platform means that instead of women using their voices ‘to impact the world’, many women are instead being pushed backwards to a culture of silence.
— Amnesty International

As we know, technology cannot be inherently evil. It does not have motivations, emotions of a vengeful personality. So what is it about the structure of the technology of these platforms, and how the (definitely capable of evil deeds) human beings use them that can create these problems for women?

With Twitter, perhaps it’s the quick, throwaway comment nature of the interactions; the average lifespan of a tweet is about 18 minutes (but usually people think it’s less). With 500 million tweets being sent every day it could be easy for a troll to sit behind their keyboard and think that their single ‘tiny’ death threat or offensive comment would be immediately lost in a sea of others.

Twitter have now introduced a specific word mute filter which allows you to have a certain amount of control over what comes in at you, but it begs a new question, should any of us have to spend time predicting what abuse is likely to get directed at us in order to prevent it?  

Instagram, on the other hand, appears to structurally be more geared towards positivity, with the original function available being to ‘like’ an image. There’s no dislike button, so the absence of a like is the alternative to the instant hit of validation. Comments are a potential problem but you have the power to switch this function off, therefore blocking the trolls in their tracks. Do the flattering filters actually provide so much more than they seem? Are they actually a glossy veneer for inauthentic behaviour, and who can you trust when everyone is being positive all the time?

The site encourages its users to present an upbeat, attractive image that others may find at best misleading and at worse harmful.” Aka everyone is perfect, except you.

The hotly debated algorithm has been blamed for perpetuating this negative behaviour. Since the site shifted from chronological content to showcasing the most popular posts and therefore “promoting a curated, unrealistic version of an already curated, unrealistic feed”.

Perhaps both platforms are enabling a space where people can say things that they would never necessarily do in real life, but just in slightly different ways. One thing is for certain is that we need to be hyperaware of any shifts in technology to make sure that women are able to use these platforms to amplify their already highly marginalised voices, not become silenced altogether. We need to avoid Scottish politician Ruth Davidson’s grave prediction that ‘we are in danger of allowing online platforms like Twitter to become the darkest of street corners where women fear to tread’, at all costs.

(image credit: Photo by David Calderón on Unsplash)