A study by the United Nations, which looked at data from South and South East Asia, found that between March and June 2020 – when most of these regions were under COVID-19 lockdowns – the volume and interest in misogynistic online content increased manifold, by as much as 168%. The report pointed out that a majority of the tweets propagating misogynistic narratives came from India, which attempted to discredit the rampant violence, repression and discrimination against women. The volume of searches for misogynistic profanity and narratives increased, along with searches for terms like “incel”, “men going their own way” and “men’s rights”, it said.
“Data from India, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia showed that both the volume of misogynistic Facebook posts and tweets, as well as individuals’ engagement with them, including likes, comments and shares, spiked during COVID-related lockdowns in that period, with a 168% increase from the same period in 2019,” found the study by Mythos Labs for UN Women Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. Google Trends data from Sri Lanka, India, Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia showed a similar spike of 25% or higher in relative search volumes for misogynistic profanity. These included words such as ‘bitch’, ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ along with local language slurs.
The research showed that over 50% of the COVID-related tweets in India were fraught with misogynistic narratives. For instance, some of the narratives claimed that COVID-19 has exposed the “hollowness of feminism”. Some tweets implied that feminists have a “sick mindset” as they equated staying at home with domestic violence. This narrative was found in both India and the Philippines and was posted by men 97% of the time. It must be noted that the United Nations Women has acknowledged domestic violence as a ‘shadow pandemic’ that has come with COVID-19. “Emerging data shows an increase in calls to domestic violence helplines in many countries since the outbreak of COVID-19,” UN has said.
Two other narratives that emerged from India during the period included domestic violence on men and discrimination against men. In the first instance, 89% of the tweets by men in the country used hashtags such as #husbandburning and #domesticviolenceonmen, indicating women were committing violence against men. The same percentage applied for posts that indicated laws and rules are discriminatory against men. Some claimed in their posts that Facebook was deleting accounts that stand up for men, alluding that feminism is a “global conspiracy”.
According to the report, over 90% of the tweets from India were shared by self-proclaimed members of “misogynist organisations”. “[These] were originally posted by leaders or self-declared members of misogynist organisations, such as Men’s Day Out, Men’s Welfare Trust and others,” the study said.
These sexist organisations were active in disbursing misogynistic narratives centered on the news events during the pandemic. “For example, Twitter users in India were quick to exploit news stories about two women in different parts of the country who had allegedly murdered their husbands during the lockdown, to stress on the narrative that men are the real victims of domestic violence,” the researchers found.
Overall, three contestable narratives were found to be popular among men — COVID-19 is exposing the “ugly truth” about women; women are more "dangerous" than men during the pandemic; and the pandemic highlights laws that are gender-biased against men.
Interestingly, many of the users who tweeted misogynistic content related to COVID-19 in India and Sri Lanka were also “highly nationalistic”, going by their profiles and other tweets. “A common narrative among such users, especially in Sri Lanka, was that ‘COVID-19 has exposed the hollowness of Western ideals, so why to trust a Western concept like feminism?’ This suggests intersectionality between nationalism and misogyny among social media users and merits further investigation,” the researchers observed.
The recommendations made by the researchers included building capacity in women in South and South East Asia to identify, report and block such hateful content and making them “social media literate” to be able to counter this disinformation. The study also recommends that social media platforms monitor and remove misogynist content, and countries pass legislation that criminalises cyber harassment and cyberstalking. It is also suggested that empowerment-themed content be produced and disseminated, with men as the target audience.
Responding to the findings, Men’s Day Out, an organisation mentioned in the report, came out in defense, saying that not one of the 1000+ articles on its site suggests that women don’t undergo domestic violence and suffering. “We strongly object to the statement “discredit the rampant violence, repression and discrimination against women”.”
The organisation also called it unfortunate that there isn’t a ‘Men’s Commission’ or agency in India, to “curate” instances of “#HusbandMurder #GroomBurning #DomesticViolenceonMen”, which, it argues exist, though are not accounted for. A similar argument was made by the organisation for “false rape” cases, suicides among men due to harassment by women etc.
“Our portal has always held women in equal respect and called out foul language against either genders – as much as we can monitor on our social media platforms. If anyone is able to trace single unparliamentary term on our website, we shall be glad to shut it down,” Men’s Day Out said. “We would like to end on a note that rights for either genders must be respected and if men are speaking up and sharing their ordeal, global platforms such as yours, must regard them instead of name calling or labelling them as sexists.”