The creator of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, on Thursday wrote an open letter warning that women and girls are facing “a growing crisis” of online harm, sexual harassment, threatening messages and discrimination.
Berners-Lee wrote that such a “dangerous trend” in online abuse was resulting in scenarios where “relentless harassment silences women and deprives the world of their opinions and ideas, with female journalists and politicians pushed off social media and bullied out of office”.
His harsh warning came 31 years since his creation in 1989. Almost 20 years later, assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia launched her blog Running Commentary. She was brutally killed in a car bomb 29 months ago today.
Examples of the online abuse and misogynistic treatment criticised by Berners-Lee was experienced by Caruana Galizia. Dossiers of the hate she experienced online were submitted to the Board of Inquiry by family members and journalists. and have emerged time and time again throughout the public inquiry into her assassination.
In March, Caruana Galizia’s sister, Corinne Vella, presented a report to the Board about the portrayal of the journalist as a ‘witch’- an association regularly made in the Labour Party’s online groups.
The original term “Saħħara tal-Bidnija” was coined by journalist Lino Cassar as a compliment to refer to her as a sorceress or enchantress, she explained. However, this caught on and was then transformed into a portrayal with negative connotations, as shown in The Shift’s investigation into Labour Party online hate groups.
Earlier, in February, the public inquiry Board heard how Caruana Galizia was portrayed as a witch not only on the ruling Labour Party supporters secret online hate groups, but also on their own Party’s TV station ONE, a station which is watched regularly by almost one-fifth of Malta’s population, according to 2019 statistics, and is available online as well as on YouTube.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Matthew Caruana Galizia, the son of the slain journalist, presented documents to the Board which showed how a television feature on the channel, called ‘Elfaba’, formed part of the weekly ‘Tanatnejn’ programme, and dedicated a whole segment to “a very unsubtle portrayal” of his mother as a witch.
The segments included “recurring themes of general Labour propaganda” portraying his mother as an agent of the Nationalist Party, a witch, and in a “generally misogynistic manner” as “a woman at home with nothing better to do”.
The Inquiry Board has also heard how, following Caruana Galizia’s assassination, this portrayal has been cast upon other women who are continuing the journalist’s work and calling for justice for Caruana Galizia, including her sisters and the editor of The Shift, Caroline Muscat.
When Foreign Affairs Minister Evarist Bartolo was questioned about these hate groups and the depiction of Caruana Galizia as an “evil witch who should burn in hell” by DW journalist Tim Sebastian earlier this month, Bartolo said it was “unacceptable”, but part of the “local political culture”.
The online harassment towards Caruana Galizia plays into the larger, worrying reality of online harassment towards women, a phenomenon which is being observed not only by Berners-Lee but by many academics worldwide.
In a seminar at the University of Malta in January, Newcastle University professor Karen Ross said that the online harassment of women was “worse in tone, much more personalised, often sexualised and often violent”. While there have been positive changes in traditional media, she pointed to “more dangerous and more sexist developments on social media than we’ve ever seen before”.
Berners-Lee ends his letter with a reminder that his invention has the potential to be a tremendous force for equality and democracy. “We can’t let the crisis of online abuse and discrimination undermine this promise,” he said.
Yet, what happens when the ones who should be condemning this behaviour are those actively encouraging it?