Sylvia Estrada Claudio, MD, PhD
Professor, Department of Women and Development Studies
College of Social Work and Community Development
University of the Phillipines
(Delivered at the “ASEAN, Asia-Pacific and Global Trends in Women’s Studies: Women Connecting Communities and Claiming Spaces in the Digital Era”, International Symposium of the Asian Association of Women's Studies.
In coordination with University of the Philippines Open University (UPOU), UP Center for Women’s Studies and Women’s Studies Association of the Philippines.
Held at the Centennial Center for Digital Learning (CCDL)
University of the Philippines Open University (UPOU), Los Baños, Laguna, September 22-23, 2014.)
Colleagues in UP Open University, especially Prof. Finaflor Taylan, had been asking me for some time now to confirm the title of this talk. They were very kind, very respectful, very patient. And this was not the original title. The first title I gave them was even stranger than this one.
In truth the strangeness of the title indicates the bewilderment of a person who started her activism when she had to write with a pen on yellow paper, cut stencils with a typewriter, operate the mimeograph machine and distribute (with the help of a few hapless friends) the manifestos ordered by her political officer.
During those days, I never had feedback about whether people liked or hated the manifestos. No likes, smileys, shares and comments. Thinking back now, I doubt if it mattered that I, the writer, remained anonymous. Those manifestos were always attributed to one organization or another. Attribution to an author would hardly have generated the feedback we would have wanted to see about the effectiveness of our propaganda anyway. For the greater part of this period, the only real consequence of the loss of anonymity would have been a quick trip to the torture chamber, and surviving that, incarceration in one of the jails of the Marcos dictatorship. That kind of immediate feedback and fame, was unwanted.
You already know what a contrast the new technologies have brought to the way we write, publish, disseminate our thoughts. The production process from human thought to publication, let's say in Facebook posts or tweets, is almost instantaneous. The consumption is equally swift and the feedback as well. The literature even talks about how we have changed the way we learn and think. Other scholars posit that the entire fabric of society has changed. That what Marx calls “the means and relations of production” which underpins all other social relations and marks the limits of social possibilities, has also changed.
I shall not, of course, enter into that broad arena and the fascinating debates about the political economy of the new ICTs and globalization. My talk is far more humble. I intend only to make a few observations about how things have changed for me today as an activist.
But before I go further, allow me to tread back a little to the time of Philippine martial law under the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. These 3 days, from September 21 to 23 mark our remembrance of the declaration of martial law. Welcome to the Philippines, esteemed foreign colleagues! Share in a bit of our history. Ferdinand Marcos suspended all civil rights and placed the country under martial law on September 21, 1972. But that declaration of martial law was made public only on September 23, giving him time to sequester radio and TV stations and arrest and detain his political enemies. One wonders whether that kind of secrecy would have been possible in this age of information spread. Furthermore, one wonders whether he could have stayed dictator for almost two decades. As other authoritarian regimes are finding, one may control the traditional media outlets but still remain out-of-control in a propaganda war. This is because social media has made information and opinion dissemination accessible to many more citizens.
The internet is not a democracy
Note however that I will not use the term “democratization of social media”. Because while more people can get online and read and debate, that does not mean that the old inequities do not permeate the new media. Great numbers of the poor certainly cannot buy a computer, tablet or smart phone and cannot afford to pay for internet services. The majority of sites are also in English and therefore inaccessible to those who are not native English speakers and who do not have the opportunities that allow them familiarity with this language.
Furthermore, what has been called the infrastructure of the internet remains in the private hands of a few corporations who continue to wage war against anti-monopolist regulations in order to increase both profit and control of content. The threat of monopoly and regulation of what has become one of the most important aspects of social life is ever present. And we do live in a regime of surveillance as the recent Snowden scandal indicates.
Lack of Regulation Also Brings Dangers
Yet, one wonders whether complete freedom and uncontrolled content is all that desirable, given that the majority of sites are said to be porn sites and pay for view at that! But even those who visit sites not related to sex, are confronted with the sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, elitism and other forms of discrimination and bigotry. The internet has indeed opened us to the outside world, and we have invited that world more than ever into our homes. And the world can be a dangerous place even for women who are not too poor so that they can afford to produce and consume social media.
How many stories have we read of vulnerable children, lured by predators via the internet? Social media has been a boon to trafficking. How many stories of “bullying by internet” have we read. If the victim is emotionally vulnerable, it has led to suicide.
In a world where one's person is actually a representation, an avatar rather than a material body, sticks and stones might not hurt your bones but words can probably harm you.
Sexist Trolls and other Bigots
Allow me to get personal again, for a bit. I write a weekly column for Rappler, an online news and social media site. I also, like many of you activists here, use Facebook a lot to express my opinions.
Because of this modest political presence, I have come to experience to a very small degree what public persons have to put up with---trolling! My first intensive troll attack happened about a year ago and was elicited by a post about how the left, and I meant even the left groups I work with, seems to be unable to present ourselves as a viable alternative. Much to my dismay, it was taken by some as an attack on only on their section of the left leading to really bad comments about my weight, appearance and political integrity.
But I am a tough old bird and fought back and survived. (I might add here parenthetically that many advise that trolls should be ignored though there are an increasing number of stories of the usefulness of counter-attack). Anyway, I find the trolling has not stopped since. As one of the trolls in that original episode said, “we have you in our sights”. And indeed, the collective internet never forgets, much to the dismay of those whose sex videos have found their way to the web, especially if they did not consent to the dissemination.
But not all activists are tough old birds. Concerns have been raised that women who blog, especially the younger ones who can become columnists, editors, writers--- are often discouraged because they get trolled in far greater numbers and more intensely. This phenomenon has caused many online discussion boards, even those run by traditional media outlets, to filter comments, when their original policies were uncontrolled access.
Many women who for some reason earn the ire of men, will receive the most horrid comments and vile pictures as well as death threats. In the Philippines political media personalities like Mae Paner and Cynthia Patag who are at odds in their current views about the present administration, are both subject to this trolling. Trolling, that seems to have spared equally prominent men activists. Certainly the men do not complain of pictures sent to them of wet vaginas with the caption, “suck this whore before I cut off your head”.
Inviting Predators In
Yet it is one thing to have people invade your space uninvited, another to invite them in. I do not know if you are aware of the youtube phenomenon of teenage girls uploading videos of themselves asking viewers to give their opinions as to whether the girl is pretty or ugly. You can well imagine that the phenomenon has evoked a lot of erudite commentary, none of which appears on the responses to the girls themselves.
Commentators note, that this phenomenon shows both how these girls have consumed the commoditization of women's bodies and the commercialization of beauty, attractiveness and sexuality. But what is also clear is that young people are living their lives in the public, online, as never before.
Do we not marvel at how much personal, boring, mundane, inappropriate, embarassingly intimate, cringe-worthy, information people put online? The internet is blurring the private and the public space in ways feminists could not have anticipated when some of us called for the erasure of the divide between the public and private spheres.
Here alone, the questions raised are rather interesting for feminism in particular and political theory in general. I shall return to this later.
The normal drama of “Am I pretty,” normally played out within the family setting until the issue no longer becomes salient, has now become a public one. Open to anyone who might care to reach out to the one who asked the question.
On any given day, the distance between you and the raving sexist lunatic masturbating while calling you a slut, is only the distance between you and the video link you failed to realize was spam.
In both cases the glaringly intimate is also astoundingly impersonal. I cannot, for example write to all the girls on you tube and sincerely convince them that they need not worry because beautiful is a silly standard and they're pretty to those who really count. Here, therefore, the issue of self-worth, so intimate and fundamental to a sense of self, becomes constructed by a mass vote.
The issues raised by kids asking if they're pretty, is also an issue related to sexuality. It's an adolescent question by the way, and questions about looks are very often accompanied by questions about attraction and erotic feelings. And it is true, that young men and women are turning to the internet as another resource in their search for information on sexuality.
Internet As Boon
And here, I leave off the gloom and doom part of this talk to remind us of how the internet, even without feminist intervention can be a boon as well.
I am reminded of an incident in a conference where I spoke against the censorship of pornographic sites. A transwoman came up to thank me, saying that finding a transpornorgraphy site was what kept her from suicide. She got a little obsessed at first watching other transwomen in sexual acts until she realized she had begun to appreciate her own body as well. Then she decided to find the more informative and activist sites.
Sex workers who work online have found that the capacity of the internet to mediate intimate yet impersonal interactions suits them. Here, sticks and stones still can't hurt their bones and hurtful words can be used but only if the customer pays, sometimes, a bigger fee. If we define sexual pleasuring as part of reproduction in the socialist feminist sense, we can see that the more public face of sex work, is reversed. The online sex worker, can work in the privacy of her own home.
OFW mothers on the other hand have managed to nurture and mentor their kids through the internet. Here we see the beginnings of what early feminist theorists could conceptualize but not concretize. In online nurturing, the private nurturing now uses public media. In online nurturing the household ceases to be the only site for reproduction.
I cannot say whether this practice will lead to any further erosions of the public-private divide in ways feminists hope might be emancipatory. I might add that I am well aware that in online nurturing, the internet actually allows the woman's double burden to follow her wherever she goes. But this only reinforces that the online world remains a field of possibilities that is nonetheless pre-structured by prevailing inequities.
It is also good to note that the internet's benefits to women are not always unintentional because social media actors have intervened and should continue to intervene.
The internet allows the rural teenager to find scientific, non-judgmental, and gender positive information if she digs long enough. Nowadays, she may find that information easier because the mainstream medical community and sexual and reproductive health activists work hand in hand to make that information more available. In fact, if that teenager is a transwoman, in a remote and conservative village, the internet may be the only hope of her finding her alternative community.
Feminist and feminist lesbian porn sites can be found. Some of these sites present very interesting explorations of a sexuality that strives to be free from the sexist, heteronormative and commodified norms. Such sites are interesting to me because I believe that the answer to the exploitation of children and women in sex does not lie in the censorship of porn sites nor the criminalization of sex work. It lies rather in presenting a different aesthetics of the erotic so that what turns people on is closer to feminist conceptions of vulnerability, love, nurturing equality and justice.
Sites dealing with the issue of violence against women have helped increase the reach of feminist work in this area. This are not only information sites these days but also sites for reporting and protection.
Hashtag campaigns are another example of social media engagement that can be effective. In my experience one of the more enjoyable ones was a hashtag campaign about Senator Vicente Sotto who, in opposing the proposed reproductive health bill, delivered three highly innacurate privileged speeches which were then discovered to have been largely plagiarized. News and proof of his plagiarism spread very quickly through social media causing him trouble within hours of his speeches. Tired of his defense of his plagiarism, a professor created the hashtag #Sinnoto (meaning roughly “taken over by Sotto”) and began ascribing favorite quotations of other people as having been authored by Sotto. Soon the hashtag #Sinotto became a collection of famous movie quotes, stupid sayings, quotes adapted to make more fun of Sotto, inept translations of English quotes to Filipino and vice versa. The tag became a top trend locally and Sotto ended up complaining about cyberbullying. The hashtag phenomenon during the struggle for the RH law was not only an indication of public support for the bill but also served as a carrot and a stick for politicians, many of whom will always go with what is popular.
Campaigns such as these bring up an interesting point. The internet's infrastructure may remain heavily skewed towards corporations and other traditional centers of power but it can also amplify the power of a creative individual.
It would also be remiss of me not to mention the contribution of social media to recent democracy struggles like the Arab Spring or anti-corporate/globalization struggles like the occupy movements in this paper.
The Real and the Virtual in Political Work
Social media like blogs, hashtag campaigns, ice bucket challenges and the like are often derided because they are not happening “in the real world”. But as I have attempted to show, the internet is also material and at the same time, hyperreal. It is an arena we must engage on its own terms, but it is also an arena that allows us to engage in the material world in a different way. Such an engagement supplements our efforts at structural change but also changes our approaches to change.
On its own terms we must ensure that the infrastructure of the internet remains a common good. We must work for increasing access to social media of the marginalized including poor women. We must also ensure that content is not regulated by corporations to reflect only their political and economic interests. On its own terms the internet must become a safer space for women. These struggles need to be done online but also in the real world.
But our struggles in and through social media, allows the women's movements as well as other social movements opportunities for local-to-local, local-to-global, global-to-local, local-to-global-to local action and exchange. This increased interaction is leading to new conceptions of movement building and the redefining of the ethics of solidarity. For one thing the increased access to other struggles and contexts exposes to us to the multi-focal and multi-issue nature of resistance. This maybe upsetting to some who are then bewildered by the sudden importance of all struggles everywhere, big or small. But I believe the new technology allows an exponentially increased ability to see, respect and link with others and their struggles, to see their similarities and differences, to pinpoint conjunctures and dysjunctures and to make links when appropriate in bilateral and multilateral points of contact. We are therefore able to weave a far richer and tapestry of resistance with threads of various lengths and colors. A tapestry that is far bigger than our previous tapestries.
I now conclude by explaining my weird title. First, it is clear that feminists need to increase their social media presence because it is an important site and tool for feminist advocates. They need therefore, to become avatars. To do this, they must break the sexist, racist, heterosexist, class and caste boundaries that trap them into the traditional roles of passive princesses to be protected and owned, and become warriors. Warrior Princesses on the internet. Warrior Princess Avatars.