The politics of digital Anti-Gender Violence: A Call to Action for Institutions and Researchers

Digital anti-gender (AG) violence poses significant challenges for both political institutions and researchers. Mobbing campaigns, doxxing practices and trolling attacks are commonplace experiences for female politicians and feminist researchers inhabiting online spaces. These experiences underscore the urgent need to address the pervasive nature of digital violence. While studies have primarily focused on the ideological foundations and political activism of anti-gender groups, as well as their perpetration of violence against women in politics, there’s been a notable oversight regarding the digital dimension of AG movements and their online violence. In a context where new technologies have become increasingly politicised and where the digitalisation of politics is fast accelerating, it is imperative to examine the connections between anti-gender politics and digital violence against women, racialised and LGBTQIA+ politicians. While some initial work has started to shed light on online misogyny against female politicians, more research is necessary to address the emerging forms of violence that threaten the advancement of gender equality and thus, the quality of democracy.

Why hasn’t digital anti-gender violence received more attention? Firstly, much of the academic attention has been directed towards the institutional consequences of anti-gender actors once they secure positions of power, while also reflecting on the potential impact they could have if they were to ascend to such positions. This institutional focus has unintentionally diverted attention from digital publics and the violence that is exercised within them.

Moreover, existing research has predominantly centred on organised anti-gender movements at the national or transnational levels, often neglecting the intricate dynamics of digital subcultures and masculinist communities that operate within the broader anti-gender framework. These digital anti-feminist subcultures serve as breeding grounds for radicalised ideologies and facilitate the dissemination of harmful narratives targeting marginalised groups. While research on some of these masculinist subcultures is growing, there is a notable gap in linking them to anti-gender political and civil society groups. This gap may be attributed to the institutional-centric approach that has shaped research in this field, leading to an oversight of the digital articulation and influence of online misogyny.

But how and why do digital anti-feminist subcultures fit under the anti-gender umbrella? These subcultures have been conceptualised under the term “manosphere”. The manosphere refers to a network of online masculinist communities characterised by their anti-feminist views and, in different levels, their capacity to self-organise and orchestrate digital attacks against women (see the #Gamergate attack as an example, one of the most famous coordinated digital attacks in the manosphere). Groups in the manosphere position themselves against political correctness and the feminisation of society as a result of the institutionalisation of feminism. Albeit in different degrees, these communities reinforce a sociosexual imagery that redraws traditional gender relations and power dynamics, emphasising male dominance and the performance of hegemonic masculinities. This leads to a legitimisation and trivialisation of gender-based violence. Additionally, some of these digital subcultures are also defined by their intrinsically racist and LGBTQIA+ phobic ideologies, with some advocating for white supremacy and endorsing the great replacement theory, ​​a far-right conspiracy theory propagated by French thinker Renaud Camus. According to this theory, white European populations are supposedly at risk of being replaced by non-white individuals, particularly from Muslim communities, due to mass migration, demographic trends, and declining birth rates among white Europeans. This ideology has been linked to instances of physical violence and hate crimes associated with manospheric communities, such as the Buffalo shooting, in the US, and Plymouth shooting, in the UK, among many others.

The manosphere, thus, shows features of a politicised environment, with some arguing that anti-feminist digital subcultures can be understood as a gateway to the far-right for users and as a space for the development of microfascism. However, research establishing a link between far-right antifeminism and the manosphere tends to limit its focus  on the users navigating these spaces. We argue that attention must also be paid to exploring the interplay between organised anti-gender groups, the manosphere and attacks on feminist politicians in Europe. While this is a complex endeavour, due to the heterogeneous and scattered characteristics of the manosphere, exploring the interconnectedness within these spheres and the (re)production of violence against women, feminist, LGBTQIA+ and racialised politicians is imperative to understand the impacts of this violence on democracy. The manosphere seeks to reclaim the public sphere as a traditionally legitimate masculine space through violent digital attacks against women, feminist and non-conforming people. These attacks contribute to a process of de-democratization because they aim at vilifying, delegitimising, dehumanising and ultimately excluding targeted subjects from the public digital space. Examples in Spain include digital campaigns targeting Ángela Rodríguez Pam,  Secretary of State for Equality and Gender Violence, and the Ministry of Equality, Irene Montero, among others. The role of institutions in addressing this hostile context and protecting politicians from these vicious attacks must be strengthened, as allowing the reproduction of digital anti-gender violence poses significant threats to the integrity of politics and democracy.

In the CCINDLE project, we are researching how anti-gender pathways to violence exploit and weaponise the digital sphere for political gain. This involves recognizing that digital AG violence can be perpetrated by disparate individuals or groups not formally affiliated with any organisation, yet deeply involved in digital anti-feminist informal politics, thus still contributing significantly to global anti-gender politics.

By paying attention to the digital dimension of anti-gender violence and its exclusionary dynamics, we can better grasp the link between the digital realm and democracy. This underscores the importance of feminist institutional responses that acknowledge the digital environment as a contested space for feminist politics. Ultimately, researchers and institutions must prioritise the understanding of digital violence and its role within global anti-gender movements. This is crucial to safeguard democratic values and advance gender equality in the digital age.

By Silvia Díaz Fernández, Emanuela Lombardo and Paloma Caravantes