Global Computing Online Social Networks and Global Women’s Empowerment by Ineke Buskens

“Global Computing Online Social Networks and Global Women’s Empowerment” was authored by Ineke Buskens and published by Viewpoint magazine in April 2017. Buskens is a Principal Research Fellow with the Gender Tech Lab where she developed a research project on gender Ideologies and ICTs – learning to appreciate human diversity through digital innovations.

Buskens argues that although social networks like Facebook provide a promising future for women to engage in personal growth and social emancipation, there are some potential, perhaps unforeseen drawbacks. For example, when online discourses represent a challenge to ‘traditional’ gender relations, the way in which Facebook management mediates online disputes can have profound offline consequences for sexual and social emancipation (Buskens 22). She cites Zambian women, who are encouraged to initiate conversations about sex in Facebook groups. Zambia’s culture of male hegemony is defined by the supremacy of Cisgender heterosexual masculinity. Accepting this heterodox social endeavor had severe consequences for these women offline. Facebook pages in Zambia were created (2010–2013), women were attacked and stripped naked in the streets by mobs of male assailants who were citing Christian and cultural principles whilst claiming that the women were wearing sexually provocative clothing (Buskens 22). In their Facebook groups the Zambian moderators laid down their own cyberspace rules which include: no soliciting or pornography, no insulting language, mindfulness of of others was encouraged, and discriminatory gender norms were expressly critiqued. In creating spaces for women to express their sexuality in ways that would not be possible in the traditional social sphere, these Facebook pages were revolutionary. Buskens uses Kiss Brian Abrams to supplement her point that these spaces have not only encouraged gender equality and women empowerment, but also transformed the Zambian sociopolitical climate as a whole. She cites an Abrams quote, “engaging with each other on the basis of shared interests instead of traditional identity is an act of critiquing the traditional status quo and opens pathways for others to follow” (Buskens 22).  Linda Waleka Manda, the moderator of Real Adults Talk with Waleka, shared her experiences: “I started a page in 2010 and I would openly talk about sex, but then certain people found it offensive for a woman openly discussing sexual issues in public on the Internet, so they reported me to Facebook and my first account was closed” (Buskens 22). Facebook wound up banning several of Manda’s, but she said that she did not violate the community guidelines in anyway, so she turned to clandestine groups online. Buskens primary contention with social media platforms like Facebook  is that they may be giving in to the objectors’ demands, sided with Zambia’s male hegemonic social order and implicitly supported that order’s perspective that women should not have sexual agency. She says, “it is impossible to have a genderneutral stance in a gender-imbalanced world and that commitment to social justice requires commitment to becoming gender aware” (Buskens 23). Furthermore, she argues that a gender-aware stance requires changes in design of moderation policies and systems. Facebook and other social media platforms should align their actions and systems to support the empowerment of women, and not to support the patriarchal social order. She proposes an interesting solution to this dilemma, which is that social media platformst must distinguish postings in terms of intent. “Sexual content posted for emancipatory purposes is not comparable to sexual content posted for soliciting or selling sex that is often degrading of women and female bodies, even when it seems similar. Intent is underdetermined by words and images” (Buskens 23)

Overall, I believe this was one of the most interesting stories I have read all semester. It is multi-faceted, and fits perfectly into the intersectionality of our discussion today. I find it remarkable how Facebook failed to adequately address the sexism against Zambian women and ameliorate their continued concerns. I’m surprised I did not hear about this in the mainstream media. Adjusting algorithms to account for inappropriate content compared to empowering content seems like a major challenge. Although a great idea, I am concerned this is a rather tenable solution and feel like a greater impetus should be placed on Facebook to moderate the content in the first place. I would imagine this would require more clever algorithms than the current models.

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