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Media, Gender, and Development in the Era of Globalization Author: Bhavani Suri

Recently, a famous actress from the Hindi film industry was berated for dating ‘casually’ before her marriage. The post was splashed across social media. In fact, several reports even earlier on social media commented, ‘try everything before you get the right thing’ – on the same person. While I am not here to glorify or vilify professions, gender equality in the 21st century is still a fight. Isn’t it ironic that in the age of AI and robotics, we still need a dialogue on gender equality?

In the digital age, nothing seems impossible. The internet shrunk the world, renormalizing how we saw ‘local’ businesses. Our thoughts today are global, and yet, we are fighting for the obvious – Gender equality – this scheme has grown out of the women-only zone to the everyone zone.

What do we understand by gender equality?

There are several definitions I found online:

One says, “Gender equality means that all genders are free to pursue whatever career, lifestyle choice, and abilities they want without discrimination. Their rights, opportunities, and access to society are not different based on their gender.”

Another says, “Gender equality is the state in which access to rights or opportunities is unaffected by gender.  It’s not only women who are affected by gender inequality—all genders are impacted, including men, trans and gender-diverse people.”

But I would sum it all up into just three things: Entitlement, Dignity, and Safety. These apply to all genders. Everyone is entitled, regardless of gender – to political, social, and economic equality. Dignity is everyone’s right regardless of gender – everyone has a right to be valued, respected, and treated ethically. Safety is everyone’s right, regardless of gender – where services are provided to one and all in non-judgmental and non-criminalized environments. That includes walking on the road without being judged.

Well then, what is social media?

Social media enables common-minded users to create a space on the internet to share content and participate in discussions.

The first social media platform was Six Degrees, created in 1997, which enabled users to upload profiles and make friends with other users. Then came MySpace in the early 2000s, and a few years later, we saw Facebook, now known as Meta, YouTube, Reddit, and finally Twitter, now known as X. There are other ravenously popular ones like TikTok and Reels, that showcase bits and pieces of information – just as much as you might want them.

Today, on average, internet users spend 151 minutes per day on social media and messaging apps, an increase of 40 minutes since 2015. Social media is an integral part of daily internet usage. The number of social media users is predicted to rise to 5.85 billion worldwide if we haven’t reached that number already.

Social media's primary purpose is to connect people and facilitate global communication. Users can share information, express themselves, and interact with broad audiences in real time. – to be repeated REAL TIME.

How is this related to gender, bias, and reality?

Research has shown that social media affects various genders differently and has the ability to encourage toxic masculinity or transphobia. The youth are typically under a lot of pressure to conform to harmful gender norms on social media, a place where gender identity is affirmed. A woman’s well-being, self-worth, and body image are all impacted by the sexualization of women on online networking sites. Women are, otherwise, hypersexualized and even portrayed as lesser than men or even devoid of clothing.

Does social media affect the LGBTQ+ community?

Of course, it does - social media also affects nonbinary and LGBTQ+ people because of the hate that circulates online platforms.

Social media is a powerful means for raising public awareness of women’s rights concerns, inspiring global action on the streets, and even forcing decision-makers to increase their commitment to gender equality. However, women’s rights and concerns are openly shamed on digital forums in an effort to undermine initiatives that use social media platforms for the general good.

This problem negatively impacts all women because women are impacted by the effects of both systemic and specific sexism in their daily lives, and social media is a powerful tool that can be used to help solve (or worsen) issues like gender inequality.

As for social media’s impact on the LGBTQ+ community, there are homophobic and transphobic people on social media, and they take every chance to make people feel worse about themselves or try to change them because of their identity. Sometimes, when people in the LGBTQ+ community see negative comments or posts about how they are ‘the devil’s spawn’ or ‘disgusting,’ it makes them start to believe that and want to hide themselves.

Despite their many positive affordances, it is, however, increasingly clear that women and girls experience disproportionate and different harms online compared with boys and men.

These include sexist stereotyping in online advertising content and algorithmic targeting, negative body images induced by comparison with idealized images of women, misogyny and gender-based abuse, technology-facilitated coercive control, economic and political marginalization, and side-effects of the dehumanization and degradation of women in misogynistic pornography.

Research showed that internet usage, particularly on image-based ‘social media’ platforms, is associated with increased body image and eating anxiety and that adolescents appear particularly vulnerable. Because girls grow up in a (real) society in which women’s bodies are routinely sexualized and used by others to assess their value, women tend to be more self-conscious of how they present themselves.

The LGBTQA+ community has a rich history of activism and advocacy, beginning with the Stonewall riots of 1969. This event, which took place in New York City, was a turning point in the struggle for LGBTQA+ rights and led to the formation of numerous organizations dedicated to advancing the rights of this community. Since then, significant progress has been made in many countries, including legalizing same-sex marriage and enacting anti-discrimination laws. 

However, despite these advances, members of the LGBTQA+ community continue to face significant challenges, including harassment and discrimination on social media. Many countries worldwide still criminalize same-sex activity, and community members may face social ostracism or even physical harm for expressing their gender identity or sexual orientation.

Cruelty and anonymity go hand-in-hand on social sites.

On the good side, Twitter, Google, and Reddit have adopted new policies or introduced tools meant to reduce abuse on their sites. Still, the recent efforts simply aren't enough to combat the exploitation they've let fester for years.

Every day, countless individuals and groups are victimized on social networks. The abusers, detached and cloaked in anonymity, often take on different personas as they shame, troll, incite, and denigrate others with relative impunity. The ramifications can be devastating, and until recently, the majority of social media companies failed to acknowledge — let alone confront — the vulgarity and vicious threats that fly so freely on their platforms.

The communal benefits of social media are relentlessly challenged, sometimes usurped, by people who want to turn online communities, such as Twitter and Snapchat, into bullying playgrounds.

Our experiences on social media reflect a combination of technological and human decisions - from decisions by data labelers who categorize content to company leadership steering its strategy and priorities and design teams that program the very algorithm curating our news feeds.

Unpacking the human and technological biases that are built into the hardware of social media platforms is crucial for understanding how to stem the flow of hateful content toward women. As feminists continue to use online spaces to ignite change, it is even more important to ask why misogynistic or sexist content has been reported and removed less than other forms of hate speech.

To develop a more just and equal online world, it’s of urgent interest to learn how users and advertisers, relying on automated algorithmic and binary data systems, end up replicating discriminatory practices online or epitomizing patriarchal gender norms.

On a closing note, I would like to leave you with a simple thought: If social media was made to make friends and stay in touch, why do we have wars today? Can social media stop this, please?

Bhavani Suri E-mail: bhavanik7068@gmail.com

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