Where are the Women in Online Political Discourse?

As any of my Facebook friends could tell you, I am obsessed with writing political statuses and arguing with whoever comments. The responses to what I write vary wildly, but one thing about them always remains consistent: there are invariably fewer female commenters than male commenters.

This pattern is not confined to my Facebook page. Across the Internet, men dominate websites devoted to posting opinions, such as 4Chan and Reddit. Tragically, because women do not feel as comfortable publicizing their own opinions on the Internet, male netizens are the primary shapers of online political discourse.

Much of women’s reluctance to post their opinions on public sites like Reddit is due to the prevalence of Internet harassment. An Australian study carried out this year found that 76 percent of women under 30 reported experiencing harassment or abuse online. Women also received twice as many death threats and threats of sexual assault as men.

But harassment is not the only reason women refrain from posting political opinions online. After all, the women who comment on my Facebook statuses are unlikely to be harassed by strange men; for the most part, they are talking to men they know. Women’s reluctance to post is also not due to a lack of political engagement.

Voter turnout is substantially higher among women than men. I regularly receive private messages from my female Facebook friends with feedback about certain posts, and women often read comment threads and ‘like’ comments they agree with. Women have the requisite knowledge to contribute to political discourse online. So why don’t they?

More women hesitate before posting online because they are less self-assured than men and because they feel social pressure to be pleasant and funny, rather than confrontational. Countless studies have found that men tend to overestimate their levels of intellect, while women tend to underestimate theirs. Moreover, confrontational women are usually perceived as emotional or bitchy, while aggressive men are not.

When one of my female Facebook friends expounds at length on their political beliefs in posts or comments, they are seen differently than a man arguing the same opinions. Understandably, a Czech study found that while women and men are equally likely to partake in low-visibility political activity on Facebook, such as ‘liking’ political posts, women are far less likely to post their own comments, especially negative ones that might cause conflict.

This is a problem because it means that most online political discourse is dominated by men—and political discourse is rapidly moving online. Much of the racism, xenophobia, and misogyny underpinning the run-up to the recent presidential election was fueled by alt-right message boards on websites with heavily male users, including 4Chan and 8Chan.

While there are some highly visible alt-right figures (such as Milo Yiannopoulos, a flamboyantly gay misogynistic Breitbart writer who refers to Donald Trump as “Daddy”), most of the people who drive online alt-right discourse are anonymous posters in nearly all-male spaces.

In those online spaces with many women, it is possible to push back against the insidious alt-right. After political blogger Nate Silver published a graphic showing that Trump would win the presidential election if only men voted, alt-righters started a #Repealthe19th hashtag on Twitter to encourage the repeal of the constitutional amendment allowing women to vote.

The hashtag’s creators did not account for Twitter’s gender ratio, which skews female. Feminists hijacked the hashtag, and more than ten times as many people used #Repealthe19th to express anger over its creation than to genuinely wish for the amendment’s repeal. Unfortunately, most of the websites where women outnumber men, such as Pinterest and Instagram, are less inherently political than Twitter.

I understand why many of my female peers do not broadcast their political views, either online or in person. I am terrified of appearing stupid, and because of this, I often use snarky jokes to preemptively conceal any gaps in my knowledge.

Last year, I had an experience with a male classmate that made me consciously attempt to limit this defensive posturing. This classmate is universally regarded as very intelligent, and I respect his opinion. At the end of the year, I learned he had told a friend of mine that I had detracted from our class by making inane jokes.

My classmate was right. Due to my lack of confidence, I had presented myself during class as a one-dimensional sarcastic Hillary Clinton shill rather than a serious political thinker—to the detriment of our class discussions, which could have benefited from an additional serious female perspective.

As women, we should not let our misplaced insecurities prevent us from expressing our political views online. If nothing else, this election season proved that we are needed to counter the bigotry and misogyny espoused by the heavily male alt-right corners of the Internet. Our opinions are valuable and our voices should count. We deserve to be part of America’s political discourse.

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