Opinion

Coronavirus Quarantine: Home Alone With the Hate Virus

An illustration photo.
Ayala Tal

At this rather apocalyptic time, when almost all activity involving human interaction has been canceled, public life is relying more and more on the internet. Colleges and schools are switching to online learning, concerts and other performances are being livestreamed, business meetings take place through video conferencing, and companies (including Haaretz) are switching to working from home. Even Greta Thunberg has urged climate activists to demonstrate from home.

People order food over the internet, do yoga through YouTube and consult their doctors via dedicated apps. Gaming companies have reported a sharp rise in demand for online games, and social networks are exploding.

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But what kind of world awaits us on the web? For women, minorities and members of the LGBT community, this is a space that replicates the inequality and discrimination which exist in the real world, sometimes with even greater intensity.

Let’s start with the stunning statistic that 52 percent of women worldwide have no internet access (compared to only 42 percent of men). And the gender gap in internet access is only growing, especially in developing countries.

Moreover, even for women who have internet access, this is an unsafe space. The web provides fertile ground for trafficking in women, pornography and the dissemination of sex tapes without permission.

According to the Berl Katznelson Foundation’s 2018 report on hate speech and incitement to violence, around 200,000 online posts offensive to women and girls appear on the web in Israel every year, including curses and wishes for them to be raped or murdered. Most of this verbal violence is aimed at female politicians and journalists.

In other words, if you have something to say, you are more likely to be objectified and humiliated and to suffer gender-based violence. In the gutter of online comments, there will certainly be several examples regarding this article as well. When it comes to treatment of women, the internet is a Wild West where everything is permissible, and people speak and act violently in ways they would never allow themselves to do in the street or at work.

This inequality has also seeped into the technologies of the future – artificial intelligence and machine learning. Numerous studies have shown how the algorithms used in these technologies duplicate and echo the prejudices and racial and gender biases of the engineers, programmers and designers who created them, and of the data they mine for their knowledge.

A 2017 Oxford University study published in the journal “Science” showed how an AI program absorbed the prejudices rooted deep in society’s use of language. The words “female” and “woman” were linked to the arts, the human services professions and the home, while “man” and “male” were linked to math, science and engineering professions.

Last week, to mark the World Wide Web’s 31st birthday, its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, called for urgent action to make cyberspace safe for women. “The web is not working for women and girls,” he wrote in an open letter, adding that online harm to women and girls ought to worry all of us, since it is causing women to give up on certain jobs and girls to skip school, undermining relationships and silencing women’s opinions.

“It’s up to all of us to make the web work for everyone,” he wrote. “That requires the attention of all those who shape technology, from CEOs and engineers to academics and public officials.”

Israel’s economic leaders, especially senior executives at tech companies, must urgently adopt Berners-Lee’s recommendations. A good place to start would be by recruiting more women for key positions in high-tech. According to a report published by the Central Bureau of Statistics in honor of International Women’s Day, just 32.5 percent of high-tech workers are women.