First Monday

Embodying the Web, recoding gender: How feminists are shaping progressive politics in Latin America by Luisa Cruz Lobato and Cristiana Gonzalez



Abstract
This work takes the ambiguity of engaging politically in a Web interwoven with power and gender asymmetries as a starting point to emphasize the heterogeneities and multiplicities of digital politics. We engage with the idea that technology intervenes on women’s’ bodies to analyze how digital activism is deeply connected to corporeality (Daniels, 2009), looking at the Brazilian #EleNão campaign on Facebook to emphasize how the embodiment of feminist struggles in commercial platforms unveils deeply embodied misogynistic dispositions in social media, and to latin-american feminist infrastructures as challenging such dispositions. We argue that transgressing gender norms involves both engaging with social networks and creating alternative forms of coding women’s bodies, and that, beyond the dichotomy of enchantment/disenchantment with contemporary Internet politics, it might be useful to simply stay with the trouble, embrace and recognize the complexities of the many possible Web activisms experienced in Latin America.

Contents

Introduction
#Cyberfeminism(s) in Latin America: #EleNão campaign
Embodying the Web
Recoding gender
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

The pervasive sense of disenchantment with contemporary Web politics stems from a view of the early Internet as a democratic and horizontal infrastructure. Nurtured out of a community of researchers, managers from governmental agencies and non-expert users (Abbate, 1999), the Internet was quickly associated by pundits, scholars and investors to visions of a networked and deregulated marketplace of ideas (Turner, 2006). For authors such as Negroponte (1995) and Rheingold (1993), its disruptive potential resided in how it allowed for decentralized communications, flat organizations, increased democracy and citizen empowerment.

But there is nothing intrinsically democratic nor horizontal about the Internet (Chun, 2006; Galloway, 2004; Dean, 2009; Curran, et al., 2012). In showing how online violence against women is commonly seen as an intimate and private matter, and stressing capitalist and asymmetric sides of a Web that has become widely dominated by corporations and like-minded groups of white men, feminist critique has contributed to the view that the Internet is ‘broken’ (Fossati, 2018a; Pinto, 2018; Lee, 2019).

Following an increase in Internet usage by women [1], feminist perspectives have helped expose the ways in which gender-based violences and inequalities also go online (Coding Rights; InternetLab, 2017; Acuña, 2017). Notably, they have focused on the fundamental insecurity of the Internet to marginalized groups — trans and black women, prostitutes, activists, etc. — be it in the form of gender based violence and cyber-attacks (Fossati, 2018b; Akter, 2018; Gurumurthy and Vasudevan, 2018; Pavan, 2018), mediation through precarious infrastructures in which bans and shutdowns are common, digital inequalities (Gray, et al., 2017; Wachter-Boettche, 2017) or complete lack of access (Derechos Digitales, 2017). And as visibility online has entailed more exposure to violence (Acuña, 2017), it is not a coincidence that activists, journalists and artists are the preferred targets of censorship, coordinated cyber-attacks and identity theft, all directed specifically against these groups for their online engagement.

This panoply of violences has also shed some light onto the dynamics of power and control that have helped to feed a sense of ‘disenchantment’ with the Web (Vaidhyanathan, 2018; 2004). But beyond a sense of enchantment/disenchantment, in this article we look at the paradoxes and ambiguities that have long been constitutive of Web politics. We engage with two distinct instances of digital feminist activism — “hashtag activism” and the construction of autonomous infrastructures — to shed light on how commercial platforms are strategically deployed for activism by both organized and spontaneous social movements and, how, at the same time, feminist activists have sought to provide alternative infrastructures distancing them from the profound insecurity of commercial platforms. We first look at #EleNão (#EleNão) campaign on Facebook and Twitter to emphasize both the embodiment of feminist struggles in commercial platforms and parallel exposure of activists’ personal data and bodies, which makes them easy targets of cyber-attacks and even physical violence.

Centralized private platforms provide the infrastructure that women use to access the Internet and communicate with family, friends and peers (Fossati, 2018b). Parallelly, these platforms have become sites of insecurity and widespread surveillance (Zuboff, 2019), being embedded with misogynistic dispositions [2] that enable and amplify violence against women. Such dynamics are particularly acute in Latin America, one of the most violent regions in the world for women (Essayag, 2017; Small Arms Survey, 2016).

Online violence against women notwithstanding, Latin American women’s political engagement in commercial and non-commercial Internet platforms is notable. In 2018, hashtag activism went viral across the region. Examples include: #NiUnaaMenos, #AbortoLegalYa, the first being a reaction to gender violence while the second a wide campaign in favor of legalizing abortion in Argentina; #Cuéntalo, in Mexico, which invited women to report aggressions, and #EleNão, in Brazil, in reaction to Jair Bolsonaro’s candidacy. Far from being new, hashtag activism epitomizes some of the greatest hopes and disillusions with the potential of digital technologies for progressive politics and liberation (Dahlberg, 2009; Morozov, 2011) and has become useful to reflect over the complexities of women’s online engagement throughout Latin America. Whereas it is said that hashtags rely on simple, oppositional logic (Morozov, 2009), we argue that the act of using digital communication strategies can destabilize assumptions that computers and digital platforms are neutral and objective and show how infrastructures are deeply political and embedded with violence.

We articulate the work of Donna Haraway (2016), N. Katherine Hayles (1999) and Saba Mahmood (2005; 2001) to trace the ideology of a separation between women’s bodies and technology and conceptualize the ways in which the Web is constantly (re)embodied through Latin American women’s multiple experiences. We show that this multiplicity also involves the use of existing digital communication strategies for advancing progressive politics and the creation of new infrastructures and forms of coding women’s bodies. Rather than escaping the trouble, we should, as Haraway (2016) indicates, stay with it. This means embracing and understanding the problems involved in the making of digital activism — the violences and the contingent coalitions between women and women and machines, either proprietary (e.g., social media platforms) or autonomous (e.g., feminist servers). We argue that recognizing that activism takes place by both engaging in troubling commercial platforms and in providing autonomous alternatives that coexist with the former allows for visualizing the different possibilities for politics that open up in the absence of a clearly emancipatory enterprise.

 

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#Cyberfeminism(s) in Latin America: #EleNão campaign

Hashtags are social media and microblogging conventions that have been used to mobilize protests — digital or ‘on street’ — worldwide. Two notable examples include the use of #jan25 during the Tahrir uprising and #occupywallstreet, both mobilized on Twitter. Expressed by a pound sign (#), a hashtag produces dynamic and user generated tagging, making it easier for users to find specific content. Consequently, like-minded people can more easily connect with each other, using hashtags to support communication and decentralized organization.

Despite being part and parcel of platform capitalism’s surveillance infrastructure that can expose activists in real time situations (Srnicek, 2017; Tufekci, 2018; Evangelista, 2019; Zuboff, 2019), hashtags have been strategically used as an umbrella by feminist movements to debate and raise awareness about political issues, as well as mobilize discontent voices and in/from the streets (Rodrigues, 2015; Agência Pública, 2018; Rossi, et al., 2018). As typical World Wide Web tools for communicating — fora, chat rooms, mailing lists, etc. — lost their centrality to social networking, an architecture favoring mass communications and surveillance was able to channel the “viralization” of specific topics within social media platforms (Sampson, 2012), where effects of contagion and swarming, expressions themselves of both an “antiWeb” and forms of civil disobedience against control (Galloway and Tacker, 2007; Sauter, 2014), somehow facilitated contact with feminist agendas.

It is in this context that campaigns such as #MeToo, #NiUnaAMenos and #EuNaoMerecoSerEstuprada have gained widespread resonance (Bortolon, et al., 2015; Jackson, 2016; Trillò, 2018). The three have in common the fight against gender violence: in 2017, the #MeToo gained worldwide traction as a response to allegations of sexual harassment against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinsten (Powell, 2017). One year earlier, in Argentina, the shock that followed the brutal rape and murder of the 16-years old Luca Pérez led thousands to Plaza de Mayo, while the #NiUnaAMenos hashtag dominated social networks (Trillò, 2018). And anticipating #EleNo campaign, #EuNoMereoSerEstuprada came as a reaction to Jair Bolsonaro’s declaration that he would not rape congresswomen Maria do Rosário, from the lefitist Workers Party, because she was too ugly to “deserve it” (Mohallem, 2017).

Quite paradoxically, in hashtag activism the same embodied materialities of code, algorithms, data, fibres and cables that discriminate are believed to also amplify the voices and demands of feminist movements (Bortolon, et al., 2015). While some initiatives remain restricted to online mobilization, others can spur other forms of political action — e.g., taking the streets and relying on more ‘traditional’ means of mobilization (Trillò, 2018). The mobilization against Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro during his campaign for the office is noteworthy. The group “Mulheres Unidas Contra Bolsonaro” (Women’s United Against Bolsonaro, MUCB) was created on 30 August 2018, as a response to the candidate’s positions regarding women and other disadvantaged groups [3]. The group’s motto, “ele não” (“not him”), echoed the mobilization against Bolsonaro’s candidacy and a variant of this motto, “Bolsonaro não” (“not Bolsonaro”) could be seen in the first logo adopted by the group at the moment it was created (Figure 1). The group grew exponentially, reaching two thousand members in less than 24 hours after being created, 15,000 members in 32 hours and one million in two weeks (Seta, 2018). This got the media’s — and Bolsonaro supporters’ — attention.

 

Group headline prior to the hacking
 
Figure 1: Group headline prior to the hacking. Source: MUCB archive.

 

Only two days after it reached the one million mark, the group and its administrators suffered a series of cyber-attacks, being hacked at least twice and having its Facebook logo and name changed to express support to Jair Bolsonaro’s candidacy. Changes in the group’s name to “Mulheres COM Bolsonaro!” (Women WITH Bolsonaro!), “MULHERES A FAVOR DO BOLSONARO!” (WOMEN FOR BOLSONARO!) and similar were followed by attempts to retrieve the original name [4]. While administrators struggled to regain control of the group, offensive messages to progressive agendas were posted. Bolsonaro himself echoed the defacement of the Web community by sharing in his Twitter account an acknowledgement of the alleged support (Figure 2).

 

Bolsonaro tweeting the MUCB's group hacking
 
Figure 2: Bolsonaro tweeting the MUCB’s group hacking. Source: Twitter, 2018.

 

While those in MUCB could have abandoned the group — a gesture of ‘disembodiment’ for believing in the controlled and deterministic character of the Web — they did not. Instead, the movement quickly acquired organicity and gained traction in both digital spaces and on the streets. First, the successive attacks have fed a wave of online protest which culminated with the growth of #EleNão on both Twitter and Facebook, in addition to the creation of at least 40 other pages/groups and 229 events against Bolsonaro’s candidacy (Cruz and Neris, 2018; Becker, 2018). According to the Department of Public Policy Analysis of the Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV/DAPP, 2018), on 16 September, while the group was still under attack, the hashtag was used more than 200.000 times (an average of 8,300 tweets per hour). To avoid mentioning Bolsonaro’s name and giving it visibility, “not him” replaced “not Bolsonaro” during the Facebook and Twitter campaigns. Second, parallel to the social media unrest and as administrators regained control of the group, a series of street protests were organized throughout the country (Figures 3 and 4). These would later be celebrated as the largest women-led demonstrations in Brazilian history (Rossi, et al., 2018).

 

Demonstration against Jair Bolsonaro in Sao Paulo
 
Figure 3: Demonstration against Jair Bolsonaro in São Paulo. Source: BBC Brasil.

 

 

Mapping of the retweets of the hashtags #EleNao (purple) and #YesHim (blue) from September 2018
 
Figure 4: Mapping of the retweets of the hashtags #EleNão (purple) and #YesHim (blue) from September 2018. Source: Labic/Fábio Malini.

 

Social media activism exposes the inherent vulnerability of the infrastructures in which feminist movements operate. Paradoxically, rather than attributing bodies a fixed identity (Puar, 2007), they also indicate the existence of a materiality of bodies and the multiple ways in which a body can be lived and experienced in digital social media (Lupton, 2016). In each engagement with Facebook or Twitter, bodies and digital platforms ‘merge’ in a sort of partial connection. This merging generates and regenerates new data, which flows in and out of the body, going into the unknown paths of digital economy. In becoming and eating data, our bodies become increasingly permeable and the boundary between data and body more easily trespassable (Lyons, 2020). This materializes gendered relations in at least three different ways.

First, as indicated above, bodies exist in a sort of tension in commercial social media platforms — being constantly threatened by it and parallelly becoming partially connected to it — and this also empowers anti-feminist groups (Zuckerberg interviewed by Iqbal, 2018). This tension is characterized by the material affordances that put commercial social media together and the inherent vulnerabilities they present to marginalized groups. For instance, the MUCB’s hacking could only happen after attackers have gained access to group administrators’ Facebook identities by illegally hacking into their smartphones and appropriating their SIM card information [5] (Tavares in Matsuura, 2018; Cruz and Neris, 2018). In this sense, women’s ‘bodies’, which include all the data produced through their relationship with technology, were appropriated by outsiders with the intent of reconfiguring the dispute in favor of the misogynist candidate.

Second, these bodies were targeted for their engagement with #EleNão movement. MUCB attackers threatened to expose the administrators’ personal data, such as identification numbers and profiles — which is called doxxing (Varon in Becker, 2018) — obtained by creating fake profiles supportive of progressive agendas to gain access to the community and, thus, information on its activities and members. According to the NGO Safernet, whose database includes data collected in its complaint channel, Federal Police data and data from the Brazilian Human Rights Secretariat, during the electoral period there was an increase in complaints of online gender violence involving domains like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. In addition, threats were not restricted to the online environment only and yielded their share of physical violence.

Third, womens bodies were constantly reconfigured in memes depicting feminists as hairy, unfeminine and brute. During the electoral campaign, in social media channels, such as WhatsApp groups, moral fears against feminists and the so called “gender ideology” were materialized in the dissemination of anti-feminist memes as a form to defend normalized views of the beauty and the feminine body (Pinheiro-Machado, 2018). ‘Meme politics’ has helped spread images and misinformation during the electoral campaign and can be seen as a story of the continuous mobilization of informational power infrastructures of private companies, such as Facebook, to the benefit of a status quo that privileges control over women’s bodies.

#EleNão and MUCB have politicized women’s bodies online by both challenging the regime of visibility typical of social media platforms (Trillò, 2018) and increasing the dissemination of content that includes LGBT rights, violence against women and abortion, as well as the fight against racism, classism and sexism. They have produced divergent imaginaries and political articulations in a space that usually fosters sanitized ideas on supposedly universal and abstract images of what it means to be human (de Souza, 2019). By engaging with the technology at their disposal and improvising within the constraints of commercial platforms, MUCB members and those mobilising #EleNão reinstated their presence in the Web, connecting to different people and establishing a dispute over future world-making and how Brazil would look like if Bolsonaro won the election. Hence, protests and demonstrations were as much about women rights as they were about regaining control over discourse circulation.

This engagement also indicates that hashtag mobilization goes beyond simple, oppositional logics. Group participants shared information about alternative candidates, as well as dossiers with Bolsonaro’s portfolio throughout his career a congressman, tips about how to convince undecided voters, recommendations about what to do during street demonstrations in case of an escalation of violence, shouts and chants and mutual support. Thus, instead of retreating from Web communities and platforms for fear of violent threats and harassment, women have multiplied their presence, creating communities in Facebook and populating them with political information.

Negative reactions to such an ‘intrusion’ are manifestations of an expressive violence (Segato, 2005) which seeks the absolute control of a will over another. This form of violence has been present in the Latin American territory ever since colonization and has been instrumental for its domination, going unpunished in its capture of bodies and territories, both cognitively contiguous in their subjection to conquest. In the disputes surrounding #EleNão and MUCB, social media and those engaged with both the hashtag and group have respectively played the role of the territory and the bodies to be conquered. The punitive aspects of cyberattacks and its physical manifestations, aiming to silence, shame and demoralize women, are indicative of the aggressors’ belief in their moral superiority and of an imaginary in which women are destined to be restrained, censured, disciplined and reduced by embodied misogynist violent gestures that become communicative acts in need of an audience (Segato, 2005).

Having celebrated the role of social media in popularizing progressive agendas, media outlets and academics have nevertheless neglected the complications that hashtag activism presents to progressive politics. Efforts to exploit blogging and hashtags have experienced uneven success among feminist groups (Steiner and Eckert, 2017). Also, the way in which violence is channeled through psychological and physical exposure to cyberattacks and may become corporeal has been mostly taken for granted. There was, however, a concern with Facebook’s real name policy, implemented in 2014, which would leave activists dealing with sensitive topics, such as human rights violations, more easily exposed persecution by forcing them to act through their true identities (Varon in Becker, 2018). Being easily identifiable in social networks makes it easier for attackers to identify their targets. Journalists that were mapping Bolsonaro’s supporters or being critical of his actions also ended up having personal data stolen (Abraji, 2018).

On top of that, a MUCB group administrator suffered physical aggression two weeks after the first hacking and only a few days before the protests (Cruz and Neris, 2018). She was punched in the face by unidentified men and while the motivations of the aggression were unclear, the circumstances of the attack have raised concerns with the translation of online political violence into physical violence. Such acts of harassment and physical threats show how software and algorithms configure our interactions in social media. Any attempt to embody the Web must therefore question the commercial and gendered logics of platforms — with and from within these technologies.

 

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Embodying the Web

The relationship between bodies and machines can be complicated. It comprises, at the same time, a belief in the machine/code split which resembles the cartesian split between mind and body (Kurzweil, 1990), the celebrated potential of networked computers to transcend bodies (Wiener, 1948) and attempts to recover the histories of those who labored as early machines, e.g., female programmers (Abbate, 2012).

Violent reactions to #EleNão suggest that Latin American women have taken an unprecedented use of technology. Increased connectivity has allowed for women to voice their claims in social media, personal blogs and other channels but also made them vulnerable targets of violent actions by misogynist groups (Coding Rights; InternetLab, 2017). This engagement also leaves resistance and progressive politics open to the inscription of women’s bodies into digital technologies, which are already gendered infrastructures built to expunge the corporeal in search for the rational (de Souza, 2019). While mathematical logic of automated decisions employed to classify and organize content is conventionally considered “objective” and “neutral”, Noble (2018) reminds us that those developing digital platforms hold all types of beliefs and values and embed — unintendedly or not — racist and sexist biases into those platforms.

For example, Facebook’s and Twitter’s approach to nudity contrasts with their approach to gender-based hate: while the former is often taken as obscenity, the latter is seen as humorous, often falling under the “free speech” umbrella. Persistent harassment of women online is neither recognized as sexual harassment nor as a societal problem; instead, it is often viewed as an unfortunate side effect of the anonymity offered by the Internet.

Commercial platforms deal with gendered bodies either by censuring them or tolerating cyber-attacks against their political mobilization. However, as online feminist movements show, in discrediting/silencing women’s voices online and creating a hostile and misogynistic environment which renders the online sphere available only to men, harassment in digital platforms becomes an example of gender inequality. By engaging with hashtag activism, using digital technologies to break with the silence, spreading feminist analyses and raising key political issues and problems, women find ways to operate within a surveillance infrastructure privately managed and designed to eliminate, alienate and domesticate their bodies.

A feminist critique of this process emphasizes the contradictions typically found in both the beliefs in the separation between corporeal and non-corporeal (Hayles, 1999) and in the dissolution of the social world’s distinctions into patterns of digital information that have long sustained the dream of computation (Turner, 2006). It pays attention to the ways in which the Web is embodied in the encounter between body and technologies, in our everyday exchange with phones, tablets, sensors and applications, which reveal the places we inhabit and circulate, digitize our intimate selves, track, trace and publicize us via the not-so-innocent gestures of ‘liking’, ‘touching’, ‘clicking’ and ‘stroking’ our devices, bodily gestures that have different consequences for men and women (Holloway-Attaway, 2018; Daniels, 2009). These same corporeal and multi-sensory acts are mutually and recursively remade when we mobilize social media for politics.

Critical of the idea in cybernetic thinking that mind (information) can be liberated from its body, Hayles (1999) takes embodiment and subjectivity as constitutive of an organized choreography between body, embodiment, inscription and incorporation. The triumph of a computational culture in which information was conceived as increasingly disembodied and immaterial unleashed the need to introduce the notion of embodiment, and, with it, of subjectivity itself, back into the picture. For Hayles, this choreography exposes the connections between an ideology of technological immateriality, sanitization and neutrality and the material conditions that enable the existence of technologies. The materiality of computation provides a junction between physical reality and human subjectivity and agency, being a property of the dynamic interactions between physical characteristics and signifying strategies (Hayles, 2002).

Feminist views shows us is that embodied experience is dispersed across a spectrum of possibilities (Daniels, 2009) — which of these possibilities becomes actual depends on the contexts in which they are enacted, in such a way that no actuality becomes more essential than the others. This explains how the very technologies that enabled feminist political action were also used to promote violence against women. The act of using all the digital media at one’s disposal (e.g., Twitter, Facebook) can in fact destabilize objectivist and determinist assumptions about computers and digital platforms as simple technological tools.

While the ‘presence’ of bodies on the Internet still implies the production and commercialization of data, #EleNão reconfigures how protests take place, acting as an infrastructure for their organization: it is the agenda that brings together different women, feminist or not, and with different conceptions of what it means to be feminist. It is the dynamic through which mobilizations occur [6]. It settles the possibility of connecting the multiple and the heterogeneous into a complex composition: not everyone using #EleNão were women or considered themselves feminists. Furthermore, it also organizes a space of care and communion, a shelter where those suffering different kinds of violence can share their experiences. This is the case of the communal space of the group, in which participants could share personal views, experiences and tips about how to deal with electoral violence, how to make themselves safer online or support each other during demonstrations. Participants could ask for advice about how to deal with relatives supportive of Bolsonaro’s agenda, report supporters infiltrated in the group, as well as cases of gender violence, in addition to offering tips about where to find therapy and legal advice.

The figure of the cyborg elaborated by Haraway (1991), a mode of embodied subjectification that does not necessarily become a universal subject, indicates a way to critically inhabit the Web. By making use of the same platforms which allow violence against women, #EleNão constitutes an expression of the cyborg politics: it brings together incompatible but necessary things without producing a teleological expectation of a pure state of emancipation. Contradictory positions occupied by this figure may be key to understanding forms of solidarity and responsibility forged around the referent of a Twitter or Facebook hashtag. Women from different backgrounds and with different, sometimes incommensurable, political positions have allied temporarily over the political message emanated by the hashtag. The platforms that presented risks were also used to vehiculate the message — anything but Bolsonaro — and to provide mutual support. It was in the cyborg accountability to the expanding private power expressed in commercial social media that a cross-solidarity between mutually affecting “companion species” (Haraway, 2008) could be interwoven.

Along with the cyborg, the category ‘companion species’ entails the idea of appropriation for ends never envisioned before — in this case, never planned by digital platforms that shape how we browse today’s Web. Both concepts indicate a co-existence with technology and contradictions, showing how new, heterogeneous and contingent agencies — that allow for new ways of relating and co-evolving with each other and with technology — can be produced out of our digital alliances with private corporations.

The use of the cyborg to read women’s mobilization through digital platforms is far from a call for relativism or pluralism (not all differences are equal, and the difference itself is not necessarily liberating). It rather proposes to raise awareness, within feminist theory, of the existent bias and the need for opening up individual and collective subject positions. Instead of the ‘end of politics’ potentially implied in idea of a “disenchantment” with the Web, the undoing of liberal transcendental universality offers possibilities for more complex alliances between the differences that remain “multiple, pregnant and complex” [7], without necessarily resorting to some kind of liberal feminist solidarity that reproduces existent hierarchies.

Hashtags, inscribed in commercial platforms and as mechanisms of resistance and progressive politics, are relative, partial and viral in specific ways (Haraway, 2016). #EleNão is ontologically heterogeneous, working as a cyborg figure: within commercial platforms, it holds together a range of women with different perspectives on feminisms (including those that avoid being associated to feminism), from different parts of the world [8], social classes and often with competing political convictions, religions and worldviews. “We are on the street so people don’t think our faith has anything to do with torture, persecution, lies. Prejudice and lies do not fit with us. Our faith has nothing to do with racism, homophobia and misogyny, which is what he preaches”, said the representative of an evangelical group who attended the October demonstrations (quoted in Ponte, 2018). After the streets and until today, the hashtag is used to expose online criticism against Bolsonaro’s government and policies.

The hashtag was also reconfigured as a call for democracy, as both Bolsonaro and the vice-president and senior military officer Hamilton Mourão, indicated support for a military coup. Bolsonaro himself is well-known for his rhetorical defense of torture and of persecuting political opposition. Under this specific configuration of #EleNão, repudiating Bolsonaro was also about repudiating anti-democratic forces.

Bolsonaro’s election led to a third reconfiguration that still persisted when this article was written. While the hashtag #EleNão still modestly circulates in social media, MUCB is today a group composed of more than 2.5 million women (at the peak of the electoral run, it reached three million). While its original stated purpose was to oppose Bolsonaro, now it has become much broader:

“Official group for the union of women from all over Brazil (and those living abroad) against the advance and strengthening of sexism, misogyny, racism, homophobia and other types of prejudice. We believe that this scenario that threatens our achievements and rights in principle is a great opportunity for us to reaffirm ourselves as political beings and subjects of law.” (MUCB, 2019, translation by the authors).

The groups name was also changed to “Mulheres Unidas com o Brasil” (Women United with Brazil) as an attempt to broaden and contextualize its agenda. Its content remains strongly critical of Bolsonaro’s government and of Bolsonaro himself. Among the post-election discussions was the future of the group: whether it would turn into an NGO or a political party or whether it should remain a Facebook group. This future remains open to date.

Activism and political mobilization in #EleNão are far from being enchanted by the apparently inescapable capitalist sorcery (Pignarre and Stengers, 2011) of commercial digital platforms. They are also far from being constitutive of some sort of universal resistant/emancipated subject, a common trope in feminist traditions that tie bodily self-realization to political liberation (Mahmood, 2005). The possibilities of hashtag activism might rather suggest antithetical ways of re-coding our understanding of gender as practical coalitions, partial and contingent connections between women with different backgrounds, to the extent that they indicate a potential for complex, heterogeneous technical and infrastructural reconfigurations, while simultaneously exposing the violence against women channeled through copper wires, plastic, algorithms, platforms and feeds. Women have understood that algorithms in platforms increase the visibility of the terms, expressions or words that are most mentioned, so MUCB started to use the hashtag #EleNão to increase their visibility without making Bolsonaro “famous” in social media. Anyone who wanted to speak about the candidate also used words that sounded like his name, such as “bolso”, “bonossauro”, “bono” and “bolsobarro”.

The same infrastructure that allows for cyberattacks to happen and for men to write a post in MUBC community saying “Anonymous does not want leftists! Bunch of lazy women that does not have what to do” [sic], was then used by women to expose the attack (that was not perpetuated by Anonymous), becoming the infrastructure to organize street protests. It promoted a contingent alliance between different perspectives and interests, becoming in and of itself a contingent and unstable identity. Hashtag #EleNão started as a reaction against Bolsonaro’s speeches and their stimulation of gender violence but did not become an exclusive flag for feminist emancipation. The hashtag was also used to bring together groups of Jews and Muslims (Figure 5) and rival national soccer teams (Figure 6) to advertise a central right political party candidate (Figure 7), speak about black feminism and appear together with other hashtags (Figure 8) or just become a message in a cardboard on the street (Figure 9).

 

Jews and Muslims using #EleNao symbol
 
Figure 5: Jews and Muslims using #EleNão symbol. Source: Twitter, 2018.

 

 

Rival soccer fan clubs
 
Figure 6: Rival soccer fan clubs. Source: Twitter, 2018.

 

 

Central right candidate Geraldo Alckmin uses #EleNao
 
Figure 7: Central right candidate Geraldo Alckmin uses #EleNão. Source: Twitter, 2018.

 

 

#EleNao and #MariellePresente together in memory of the murder of a Brazilian black lesbian councilwoman
 
Figure 8: #EleNão and #MariellePresente together in memory of the murder of a Brazilian black lesbian councilwoman. Source: Twitter, 2018.

 

 

#EleNo becomes street art
 
Figure 9: #EleNão becomes street art. Source: Twitter, 2018.

 

A nuanced understanding of the possibilities of hashtag activism could benefit from the critique elaborated by Saba Mahmood (2005, 2001), who challenges the idea that all subjects have a universal desire of resisting current domination norms and criticizes the feminist assumption that women’s agency equals resistance.

Contrary to this emancipatory teleology, Mahmood postulates that, rather than being a synonymous of resistance to domination, agency should be conceptualized as an embodied capacity for action, constitutive of both emancipatory struggles and relationships of subordination. In analyzing the participation of women in religious movements, such as the Egyptian movement linked to mosques and the spread of Islam, she suggests that agency is historically linked to specific relationships of subordination that are both active and creative. In other words, spaces of domination can be constantly reconfigured without being overcome.

In view of the current uses of digital networks, it is misleading to think that alliances established in social media merely reiterate the practices of commercial enterprises or are powerlessly submitting to state surveillance. In the pedagogical practices of Islam, women reconfigure gender relations without necessarily subverting structures of power. Similar to Mahmood (2005; 2001), for whom, in politics, it is important to consider the desires, motivations, commitments and aspirations located in particular historical and cultural situations, an analysis on women-led hashtag activism must consider the possibilities enabled by our engagement with digital technologies, be it using social networks, elaborating Web pages, developing feminist cybersecurity guides or configuring a server.

The repeated use of digital technology means that, for many women — black, feminist, trans, etc. — gender performance is not necessarily oppressive. Women’s mobilization, in its multiple variables, constitutes a subjective persistency: through repeated bodily acts — persisting (re)enactments of hashtags which follow and adapt to the codes of conduct established by terms of use and algorithmic sortings that shape the “soul” of social networks. It is here that the ambivalence of the relationship between body and technology lives.

Transgressing gender norms also involves a reconfiguration of sensitivities, affections, desires and feelings, all records of corporality that escape the simple logics of symbolic representation and articulation. #EleNão shows that the engagement with social networks also constitutes a certain transversal solidarity that escapes the language of liberalism and emancipation, and belongs, instead, to the unstable ground of the uncertain and opaque conditions under which online encounters promoted by hashtags occur in all their eventuality.

 

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Recoding gender

#EleNão campaign exposes a profound ambiguity of the contemporary commercial Web. While the infrastructures in place offer a venue for women to more easily engage in political protest online and off-line, they also expose women to violence. As shown in the first part of our study, violences may also have multiple manifestations (the stealing of one’s identity, threats and intimidation via messages, attacks on feminist pages, etc.), some of which are facilitated by how platforms deal (or not) with each episode (Coding Rights; InternetLab, 2017; Ochoa, 2017), as well as deep corporeal effects including psychological and physical aggressions.

Paradoxically, exposure to this multitude of violences does not translate into an abandonment of commercial platforms. Instead, across Latin America, women’s experiences with the Web seem to be multifaceted and heterogeneous, consonant to a creative work of permanent (re)engagements with existing and available technologies. Living with the inherent insecurity of contemporary Internet infrastructure to women, while also recognizing the creative power of the contingent and partial alliances established in the Web, shows the multiple spatial and chronological actualizations of progressive politics.

The design of commercial infrastructures aims primarily at increasing the time one spends in the platforms and, concurrently, the amount of data provided about oneself. This further encourages a state of self-transparency in which we are stimulated to go by our real names, photos, ages and genders, thereby increasing the means through which we reveal ourselves to the Web (Han, 2015). It also turns a blind eye to how regional specificities, e.g., the numbers of violence against women, affect and shape individual and collective experiences mediated through platforms (Essayag, 2017; Small Arms Survey, 2016).

Off-line violences go easily online and algorithms in online platforms exacerbate the problem by awarding intensity and engagement, while platforms’ responses to gender-based violences are slow, inefficient and perpetuate them (Coding Rights; InternetLab, 2017; Ochoa, 2017). Such hostile digital environment, coupled with women’s obfuscated participation in the designing of Internet infrastructures (Abbate, 2012; Vitores and Gil-Juárez, 2016; Davaki, 2018), has prompted responses aiming at (re)designing infrastructures to provide more horizontal and secure spaces for action (Oliveira, 2019). If it is true that online violence is profoundly corporeal, it is also true that such embodiments can be recoded — there is no denial of the potential role technology has for questioning patriarchal hierarchies.

Invading a space, which is known for being too masculine, and changing how its infrastructure and circulation of information are conceived, is a core assumption of feminist hacking (Souza, 2019). Rather than being restricted to the abilities of tech-savvy people, it includes both using existing infrastructures strategically (e.g., commercial platforms) for advancing political struggles and creating new and safer infrastructures that answers to women’s needs. Both aspects of feminist hacking add to the multiple, tense and often complicated ways through which women engage politically on the Web.

Latin American women are not only occupying digital platforms, but also developing alternatives to the technologies of control and surveillance that shape the contemporary commercial Internet. These include autonomous servers and other Web services, as well as platforms, software and apps, which are run and hosted by feminist collectives seeking to create digital communities to offer safer spaces for women, as well as learning and knowledge exchanges. Examples of feminist servers include Vedetas and Cl4ndestina, both based in Brazil (Oliveira, 2019). The basic idea underpinning feminist servers is to create independent and autonomous infrastructures to counter the targeting of women, black and indigenous groups, migrants, refugees, as well as feminist, queer and transgender individuals and also to provide a safe space for activist work to be read, seen and shared (TacticalMedia, 2015). Likewise, there is the ecosystem of services provided by Kéfir, which includes consultancies, as well as tools for communication (e-mail messages, streaming, calls), Web development (Web sites and graphic design), digital security (attack mitigation services, backups, encryption and certificates) and to facilitate collaborative workflows (documents, discussion groups, project management, decision making, etc.). The manifesto “From steel to skin” illustrates a shift to infrastructures that shows a different way of thinking about digital technology:

Our actions don’t encompass more people, more women, more bodies connecting to digital tech because we acknowledge that some, many, will never have access to them or maybe they don’t want to. We strive and understand technologies from the guts, seeking to return to the skin, ancestry, to what makes us feel, what moves us, what connects us, through meaningful and vital actions, through actions that sustain and interconnect, to whom doesn’t contact with tech, digital tech. (Nanda and Nadège, 2017)

This reconfigures politics towards infrastructures: in proposing servers and services that are independent from big tech capitalist interests and originate in initiatives of local people/organizations, communities around Vedetas, Cl4andestina and Kéfir seek to reshape online services away from the unethical practices of big tech corporations and Silicon Valley start-ups. This is fundamentally about “regaining control and autonomy in the access and management of data and collective memories” (Gender and Tech Resources, 2017). The emphasis is on ensuring that feminist works live up without being deleted, censored and/or prevented from being seen, heard or read by the proprietary algorithms of social media platforms.

These infrastructures originate as responses to what the Internet has become: a consumption sanctuary and a space of surveillance, control and tracking of dissent by government agencies and private actors alike, that favors the spreading of online gender violence of different kinds — from revenge porn to trolling and harassment. Having independent hosting services that provide wikis, mailing lists, pads, content management systems and social networks, without massively collecting data and metadata to generate profit and/or track one’s activities is at the core of this dispute over infrastructure.

However, recoding gender also requires sharing this technical knowledge in a way that offers conditions to other individuals “to become interested in learning about feminist hacking” and “‘(re)appropriating technology, so that it responds to our needs and interests’” [9]. Thus, groups like Cl4andestinas, Kéfir and Vedetas also focus on exchanging knowledge of digital technologies among women, hosting workshops, mini-courses and providing learning materials on digital defense.

Ciberseguras is another example of how feminist collectives have come up with strategies to fight online insecurity. It is a network of Latin-American feminist collectives dedicated to discussing, teaching and sharing knowledge about Internet safety to women. In addition to strategies for safer navigation on the commercial Web, it also seeks to reshape online security through feminist lenses by focusing on different forms of using the Internet and offering tips and tutorials. Average users, for example, may find tutorials about how to strengthen their privacy and security, e.g., while sending nudes or using Twitter. It also includes tutorials about protecting information in one’s smartphones and more complex tutorials for users looking for alternatives to commercial Web platforms. The emphasis on self-care allows for looking at digital tools as media for interacting, socializing and mobilizing without jeopardizing women’s bodily integrity.

Other organizations have focused on women working on technology. Compared to men, women have fewer expectations to pursue careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and account for roughly 25 percent of graduates in ICTs (OECD, 2018). There is widespread recognition of the lack of female workers in the technology sector, with female employees occupying something between 15 percent to 28 percent of the workforce in tech jobs in the Silicon Valley (Richter, 2020). Women also make up for most of the disconnected: the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) estimates that there are 250 million fewer women than men online. This gap gets wider considering North/South gaps on the development of technology (Derechos Digitales, 2017) and gaps in relations of race and class (PretaLab, 2018). Thus, these organizations create communities to exchange knowledge and promote a fair and equitable employment environment, focusing on encouraging young girls and women to use, appropriate and create technology. Django Girls and Rails Girls, for example, help other women in learning new programming languages to develop Web sites and applications.

Unlike movements sparked on social media platforms, these initiatives’ primary goal is not to go viral but to create infrastructures that are autonomous from private companies through which women can collectively engage with each other and construct alternative sites for political action. Whereas these infrastructures certainly include services like social media networks, they often go beyond it by offering e-mail services, creating and storing data that do not necessarily rely upon having big tech that will “eat” it. And while most remain limited in reach and scale, operating within small collectivities, they lay a solid groundwork for collective action.

As Oliveira (2019) notes, autonomous networks work as actualizations of resistance by shedding light onto the politics of infrastructures, the importance of technological (re)appropriation and of the autonomy (even if relative) of information and communication technologies. On top of that, the buildup of autonomous infrastructures in Latin America has sought to be a collective and collaborative effort among members of a community. In this sense, feminist infrastructures have sought to incorporate categories such as consent, hearing, care and autonomy into their construction, embracing an expansive understanding of infrastructure which comprises not only hardware, software and applications, but also participative design of safe spaces and social solidarity [10].

Feminist infrastructures prioritize the local in contrast to universal, favoring situated experiences, alliances and exchanges of techniques and knowledge. According to Oliveira (2019), the emphasis on the word feminist highlights the recognition of the partiality of networked infrastructures and carries with itself a collective commitment to a collective effort of rethinking and redesigning spaces, pacts and relations — between humans and humans and machines — that challenge totalizing assumptions of technologies and how we should relate to them.

Autonomous infrastructures are not an amalgam that provides a definitive solution against domination in digital infrastructures. They are rather a desire for technological experimentation at the margins of (and sometimes within) capitalist infrastructures, setting a horizon, not perfectly achievable nor realizable, that is oriented by principles of autonomy and social justice. They operate at the realm of the actual, when they get effectively assembled, discussed and used and when the experiences and technical knowledge are shared in collective workshops, and potential, in that they propose alternative designs that will most of the time coexist, challenge and, sometimes, take the place of absent commercial infrastructures and platforms.

 

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Conclusion

The Internet’s contemporary infrastructure is challenging in at least two ways: first, it is designed and thought in ways that hardly ever takes situated experiences into account. Recognizably, commercial platforms perpetuate long established forms of violences against women, offering limited tools to adequately face them. While an economy of viralization and visibility creates opportunities, it also makes it challenging for feminist groups to organize politically. Hashtags are, to borrow Haraway’s term, partial alliances — events composed by temporary engagements with limited duration and chronological reach that allow for political manifestations within certain constraints (terms of use, algorithms, community rules, etc.). They give volume and reach to feminist agendas and unite, through ephemeral ties of affection and sensitivity, like-minded groups as well as those with different political positions around specific issues.

In practice, hashtag activism is far less heterogeneous than it seems. It is complicated — not necessarily liberating — and complicates the state of the art for politics. It draws on the same infrastructure that channels power and control over women’s bodies to challenge relations of power and control. But not uniformly or harmonically. Whereas a merit of #EleNão involves bringing together heterogeneous groups of women and people with different political views, we should not assume that their demands sought the same progressive agenda. Within the group, disputes and negotiations between women from conservative sectors versus more progressive segments of society were recurrent. The potential of social media for progressive politics may be significantly limited by the very infrastructure said to facilitate collective coordination (Trillò, 2018) and one of the lessons of #EleNão movement is that hashtag activism further complicates what is already complex.

Engagement through social media and/or alternative infrastructures suggests a multiplicity of spaces of resistance within architectures of control, composed by appropriative and creative forms of engagement that sometimes get into tension with each other and sometimes overlap, as if complementing one another. The examples of #EleNão, Kfir, Vedetas, Luchadoras and many others are telling of the tensions, possibilities and limitations of online modes of engagement and their corporeality. As Daniels’ [11] indicates, “girls and self-identified women are engaging with Internet technologies in ways that enable them to transform their embodied selves, not escape embodiment”.

Whereas disconnecting from commercial platforms can be seen as a way out in some cases (Coding Rights; InternetLab, 2017), complete isolation from these platforms is hardly a feasible solution given the depth and extension to which women establish and maintain connections through them. Indeed, responsibility in and for the worldings in play on the Web requires the cultivation of response-abilities (Haraway, 2016), instead of evasion when facing violent attacks. This means embedding infrastructural meanings and materials into our engagement with technology (e.g., autonomous servers, hashtags), to infect technological processes and practices, compose and assemble shared stories from a feminist perspective — a kind of situated worlding. The examples we have discussed indicate the multiple ways through which women can get involved in online progressive politics: while some aim at recoding the unequal and misogynist infrastructure of the Web, some navigate and appropriate the space provided by commercial platforms.

The kind of activism we have been discussing throughout the article relies on a hybrid and creative assemblage of material and affective alliances. On the one hand, it includes the designing of safer infrastructures and services, far more mindful of the risks that commercial platforms pose to the well-being of women and activist groups. On the other hand, it includes situated but durable chains of affections (sorority), anchored on the exchange of knowledge (workshops, learning materials, etc.) and experiences to create safer environments. And even when committed to a normative assumption of freedom, the construction of alternative online infrastructures that create spaces for more autonomous, diverse and secure forms of action does not restrict online engagement to strictly progressive forms of feminist activism. To recognize this is to accept that reconfigurations of hierarchical relations happen in heterogeneous ways, sometimes within power structures. It also means to open up one’s perspective to modes of engagement that embrace alliances between opposing groups, as partial as they might be. End of article

 

About the authors

Luisa Cruz Lobato is a Ph.D. candidate in international relations working with the intersections between security politics and digital technologies in the Global South and how these technologies challenge how we think about global political institutions and processes.
E-mail: l [dot] cruzlobato [at] gmail [dot] com

Cristiana Gonzalez is a Ph.D. candidate in international relations working with the intersection between international political economy and science and technology studies.
E-mail: crizalez [at] gmail [dot] com

 

Notes

1. Our aim here is not to solve the epistemological and political tensions between concepts of gender/women in social theory and feminist movements. As Oliveira (2019) notes, the category “women” both effaces (what is assumed by the notion of ‘women’? How different women — trans, black, immigrant, etc. — experience discrimination, violence and inequality?) and sheds light onto a combination of structural inequalities that simultaneously crosscut bodies — such as inequalities related to sex, gender, race, class and nationality. Here, whenever we refer to ‘women’, it is as an intersectional category, permeated by multiple living and identity experiences. The focus on ‘women’ also has another explanation. In our study, mobilization led by ‘women’ is under the spotlight. The category ‘women’, even when intersectional and including women from different races, social backgrounds, classes, trans/cis and even men who sympathized with the cause, was recurrently employed to single out the movement against Bolsonaro and as a direct reaction to his misogynistic public positions. On the concept of intersectionality, see Oliveira (2019), Haraway (1991) and Davis (apud Steiner and Eckert, 2017, p. 224).

2. Facebook started as a Web site for voting whether (female) Harvard students were ‘hot or not’. Donna Zuckerberg (interviewed by Nosheen Iqbal for the Guardian), the younger sister of Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg, recognizes that social media “has created the opportunity for men with anti-feminist ideas do broadcast their views to more people than ever before — and to spread conspiracy theories, lies and disinformation. Social media has elevated misogyny to entirely new levels of violence and virulence”.

3. Bolsonaro has become known for his misogynistic declarations such as saying that women deserved to earn less than men because they could get pregnant or that the only woman among his children was born due to a moment of ‘weakness’ (Carta Capital, 2018).

4. We have tracked these changes in the group’s history, tracing back the moment when the hacking occurred and the successive attempts made by administrators to regain control of the group.

5. The attack relied on an array of techniques that included cloning the administrator’s SIM cards and infecting their phones with malware like keylogger to capture their social media accounts’ passwords (Tavares in Matsuura, 2018). SIM card information, is a common authentication mechanism used for logging in to social networks like Facebook and WhatsApp (Cruz and Neris, 2018).

6. A case in point is how protests became worldwide known as “not him” demonstrations.

7. Haraway, 1991, p. 160.

8. Brazilian women abroad have protested in Portugal, France, the U.S. and the U.K.

9. Fer Shira in Derechos Digitales, 2017, p. 5.

10. Toupin and Hache cited in Oliveira, 2019, p. 64.

11. Daniels, 2009, p. 118.

 

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Editorial history

Received 14 June 2019; accepted 17 April 2020.


Copyright © 2020, Luisa Cruz Lobato and Cristiana Gonzalez. All Rights Reserved.

Embodying the Web, recoding gender: How feminists are shaping progressive politics in Latin America
by Luisa Cruz Lobato and Cristiana Gonzalez.
First Monday, Volume 25, Number 5 - 4 May 2020
https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/download/10129/9415
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v25i5.10129