“That’s just the internet”?

From an article on internet comments sections over at The Guardian:

Recently, however, a colleague penned a piece that defended a woman – it doesn’t even matter which woman or what context. Every week brings a new reminder women are not welcome – especially on the internet.

The site published it proudly – however, and inevitably, the comment section ended up a fat sack of misogyny hanging like an unwanted testicle below it. This wasn’t a special case; it seems to happen every time a woman writes something that somehow defends some aspect of women’s autonomy.

A lot of times when people express their hatred for people’s behaviour online, wizards emerge to inform us, “That’s just the internet. Learn to deal with it.”

This assertion gives no humanity to victims: everyone is a blank, emotionless internet user, with no history of being targeted for her sex, race, sexuality. As much as we should be treated equally, in reality, we come from backgrounds where we’re not – and we continue not to be treated fairly. Second, in this assertion, the internet, too, becomes an amoral wasteland where only the “fittest” survive – and by “fittest” we usually mean individuals who rarely face prejudice or hostility premised on their gender, race, etc.

This last point reminds me of the importance of having a grasp of the concept of indirect discrimination. (See here for an explanation of indirect discrimination in the UK context.) Certain ways of treating everyone the same, when that treatment has differential consequences for particular groups, can constitute discrimination. This can be unethical, and under some circumstances illegal. It can also have other have negative consequences, such as intellectual or epistemic ones: for example, if some ways of treating everyone the same in an online comment section (or for that matter an academic discipline) turn out to be an effective method of excluding certain groups, that comment section (or discipline) may be expected to suffer intellectually and epistemically for lack of the expertise, perspectives, and ideas that those being excluded could have contributed.

2 thoughts on ““That’s just the internet”?

  1. Reblogged this on Empathic Philosophy Engineer and commented:
    Sometimes discrimination can be easy to spot – for example, if a hotel turns you away because you’re gay. This is called direct discrimination. This is when you’re treated differently simply because of who you are.

    But there are other times when you may be treated in the same way as everybody else, but it has a different and worse effect on you because of who you are. This is also discrimination. The Equality Act 2010 calls this indirect discrimination.

    Indirect discrimination is when there’s a practice, policy or rule which applies to everyone in the same way, but it has a worse effect on some people than others. The Equality Act says it puts you at a particular disadvantage.


    A health club only accepts customers who are on the electoral register. This applies to all customers in the same way. But Gypsies and Travellers are less likely to be on the electoral register and therefore they’ll find it more difficult to join.

    This could be indirect discrimination against Gypsies and Travellers because of the protected characteristic of race. The rule seems fair, but it has a worse effect on this particular group of people.

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