Published by the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation, University of Canberra

Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

Women and trust in the digital age

Nov 9, 2021 | Policy, Research, Research Wrap, Safety, Technology, Feature

BroadAgenda Research Wrap is your regular window into academia. We scour the journals so you don’t have to.

No topic too impenetrable, no research too eclectic; BroadAgenda Research Wrap brings you a glimpse of the latest gender research around the world – in plain English.

Hands up, who was expecting 2021 to end with yet another dystopian reality?

For the last couple of months, we’ve been treated to our usual smorgasbord of patriarchy. From submarine tousles to the mostly male show at COP26, the news have been as predictable as they have been exasperating.

Enter Meta. The reincarnation of Facebook wants to blur the lines between our physical world and virtual realities, a move which in the hands of select few individuals and lacking proper regulation should make anyone shudder. (Of course the ‘innovation’ aspect could also be contested – since as most parents of under 12s would know, Roblox and Fortnite are already ahead of the proverbial and literal game – but I digress).

So, what are the gendered implications of technology – whether old or new?

In a rather serendipitous timing, Australian Feminist Studies has published a special issue entitled ‘Gender, Technology and Trust: Feminist Reflections on Mobile and Social Media Practices’. Edited by Jess Hardley, Caitlin McGrane and Ingrid Richardson, the issue provides an excellent snapshot into recent feminist thinking as it explores the ever-present question of ‘trust’ in the age of digital media.

And trust, as Indigenous researcher, Professor Bronwyn Carlson details, is complicated. For non-Indigenous people the intersections of critical studies, technology, culture and society look vastly different than for the Indigenous populations who also factor in colonial history and technology, and the ways in which identities are inherently linked to place, genealogy, kinship and language.

While globally Indigenous people have been early adopters of digital technologies, and social media technologies have become a central part of the everyday lives, the platforms also mirror the constrains of the real world, sometimes further amplifying them.

Online, Indigenous women and Indigenous LGBTQI+ people are exposed to the extremes of colonial discourse, and often experience direct threats of violence including rape. The trauma incited by online racism is incalculable.

Consequently, “trust according to the Indigenous episteme,” she writes, “is based on tens of thousands of years of knowledge that has promised and delivered our survival, despite and through the enduringness of colonialism”. Trusting the ‘system’ – or in this instance the online spaces – demands that the system incorporates the views and experiences of Indigenous actors online.

As it stands, it is hard to imagine how a metaverse originating from the Silicon Valley might change the current course of action, in particular if the inherent power imbalances at all levels remain the same. We can but hope. (And regulate!)

(Read the full article, Indigenous Internet Users: Learning to Trust Ourselves, 2021.)

How can individuals then use online spaces for sharing lived experiences and forming communities, while simultaneously mitigating the harms that may arise in free-for-all spaces?

Removing the Mask: Trust, Privacy and Self-protection in Closed, Female-focused Facebook Groups’ (2021) draws on three different closed Facebook groups created by and for women: Australian ‘mum bloggers’ and readers, Australian Defence Force partners, and migrant mothers in Australia.

The authors investigate the women’s motivations for creating and participating in closed online spaces, their expectations of privacy and safety, and the consequences of potential privacy breaches. They write:

In effect, women’s creation and curation of closed Facebook groups provides a kind of shielded environment in which they can – to a certain extent – let their mask slip, provide mutual support and information, and in some cases enact non-compliance with social norms.

However, the tenuous nature of safety and trust in such environments, where privacy can easily be compromised by a simple screenshot, means that the individual masks may lowered, but not completely removed.

The authors also remain doubtful of the closed groups’ usefulness as a vehicle for broader social change. As they note, in providing the safe space the groups may simultaneously hide the complexities of women’s lives from broader public discourse; the group identity may also implicitly exclude marginalised and/or diverse individuals; and we can’t ignore the “paradox of creating ‘private’ spaces within the architecture or the commercial platform that monetises personal information”.

Perhaps most ironically, however, the solution to the problem also constitutes a significant problem. As the authors also so aptly note, these curated safe spaces also rely on significant amount of intensive labour – both material and emotional – from the group administrators and the participators alike.

Regardless of one’s identity, I think most of us would agree that women and mothers don’t need any more unpaid labour on their plate.

Finally, let’s look at the ways in which trust plays out with specific subject matters online.

In ‘The “Be All and End All”? Young People, Online Sexual Health Information, Science and Skepticism’ (2021), Adrian Farruga et al provide a fascinating snapshot of young people in Australia, and their trust in sexual health information online.

Reassuringly, the researchers found that rather than being uncritical consumers, many young people “do not readily trust online sexual health resources”, and “many desire factual sexual health information produced by experts and backed by credible research”.

But there’s always a ‘but’. The subject matter also influences the types of information people seek out. In the context of this research, young people sought medical advice from sources purporting to the present ‘facts’, whereas in matters of relationships and sexual practices, their emphasis was on life experiences.

Regardless of content, the research participants approached the information sceptically and described strategies for assessing the trustworthiness of online information. As such, as the researchers note, trust in this context is “developed through everyday, iterative practices of critical engagement”.

In the context of online disinformation, individuals’ ability to claim expertise without due diligence, and general distrust of news and institutions more broadly, the implications of their research insights cannot be overemphasised.

Perhaps children will be our future after all?


Dr Pia Rowe, author of BroadAgenda’s regular Research Wrap, is a Research Fellow at the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation, University of Canberra.

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