Trigger warning: This article tackles incidents of rape and sexual assault, which some readers may find distressing.
Victim blaming is when someone suffers a violent attack – particularly sexual violence – and then, rather than receiving sympathy or support, it’s them who is accused of being at fault. It’s usually women who are blamed. Typically, tropes are that they invited their attack by wearing revealing clothes, by giving mixed signals to their attackers, or even that, by not fighting hard enough, they were somehow implying consent.
In 2023, RNW Media ran a survey on digital victim blaming with young people from our global network in Benin, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, and Nepal. 59.50% of respondents said that they had experienced victim blaming after incidents of harassment or sexual violence and that it made them feel ashamed or embarrassed. 46.28% said that the culture of victim blaming makes them less likely to report it if they become the victim of a sex crime.
Silencing victims invalidates their experiences and causes psychological harm. It emboldens perpetrators and increases incidences of sexual violence.
The online anti-women movement
In a digital world where algorithms monetise emotion and sensationalism, online platforms have become filled with abuse, harassment and online violence. A third of young people questioned in our survey told us that they had seen victim-blaming on social media.
This is happening in the context of more and more misogynistic online content. Internet celebrities such as Andrew Tate and Jordan Petersen get huge traction for content promoting questionable evolutionary psychology that suggests deep down, women are not conscious of their own needs and desires and need to conform to ‘traditional’ gender roles.
Even post-MeToo, the proliferation of content discrediting women’s narratives shows that deep-rooted societal biases are still a major problem.
So how can smart digital strategy help turn this around?
The massive online traction these misogynists are getting means that they are reaching and influencing huge numbers of people with their ideas. And the more space their ideas take up in the conversation, the more they are normalised, and the more they set the cultural tone.
The answer, in theory, is simple. Content that counters these ideas – with better ideas – needs to get enough traction to outweigh the misogynists’ influence. We need to win the battle of ideas, in other words.
Breaking the Silence: Confronting Victim-blaming
In Kenya, Caro* was raped by her stepbrother when she was only 7, and later by her cousins at the age of 9. Years later, while homeless, she was drugged and assaulted by a doctor. During several instances of living in different homes, she was raped on multiple occasions.
Years later, Caro took to the internet to tell her story. However, to her surprise, she was bombarded with negative comments on social media, including people who called her “bitter names” and shamed her for her experiences. Caro was also discredited for being “just a grade 6 drop-out,” as if this somehow made her accounts less truthful.
Caro told us that the neglect she faced over the years, particularly from her family, was a source of deep emotional distress. “No one gave me a shoulder to cry on, they just see me as someone poor,” she says. “That’s why I was raped over and over again and taken advantage of.”
To move past her experiences and help others, Caro decided to share her story. She gave a series of interviews to Kenyan TV and print media, highlighting the issue of victim blaming and the harm it causes. She also built a following on TikTok, where she continues to break the stigma and give information to help young girls who have been through similar situations. Caro’s account name has been withdrawn due to a personal preference and current risks of online bullying.
Pop star rapist exposed by influencer
In 2012, Canadian-Chinese pop singer Kris Wu debuted on the Korean K-pop scene as part of the band EXO, and went on to become a solo superstar in China. He had an army of fans, millions of social media followers and a slew of partnerships with big-name brands including Louis Vuitton and Porsche.
But then, in 2020, Chinese influencer Du Meizhu went public with allegations that Wu was serially grooming and sexually abusing his young Chinese fans. Du Meizhu’s content sparked an investigation, and in 2022, Wu was sentenced to 13 years in prison for raping multiple Chinese minors. In November 2023, a Chinese court rejected Wu’s appeal against the allegations.
But although Du Meizhu was standing up against a perpetrator, she was swamped with abuse. When she first made the allegations, local police accused her of exaggerating the claims “to enhance her online popularity.”
Online, Kris Wu fans attacked Du Meizhu, accusing her of defamation, of “just wanting to be popular,” and criticizing her for her appearance and choice of clothes. “A good girl will not dress up like that for a photo shoot.” “She could not be a good girl because she looks so hot.”
But Du Meizhu doubled down on social media, calling out the victim-blaming culture in China, and calling for public support. Her followers became increasingly vocal in their support, challenging hate speech against Du and posting in forums praising her for her bravery.
As online misogyny gains traction, allyship and support for those affected becomes more and more important. People who are brave enough to call out victim blaming – people such as Caro and Du Meizhu – need the backing of their online communities. Likes, comments and shares do actually matter.
When thinking about how ideas grow and spread through society, social proof counts. Any content producer knows that one of the major indicators of whether or not a video will get views is how many views it already has. People look at viewcounts, because, to most, popularity indicates that something has a higher than average likelihood of giving them value. Most people follow the crowd, in other words.
Whether in fashion, culture or human rights, trends grow and shape society through traction. The more people that are seen to follow an idea, the more acceptable it comes. The more people who back activists calling out victim blaming, the more people will support them. It takes courage to take a stand – whether to call out victim blaming, or to buck a trend, to go against the conservatives and be seen to support those who call out victim blaming – but the more people who do, the more will follow.
So what can you as a media user do to help boost the traction of nice ideas in your society?
- Amplify the stories of sexual assault victims – share and reshare, to make sure they’re heard.
- Take a stand against accusatory and victim blaming language. Do not tolerate language that insinuates a victim could or should have acted or dressed differently. Call it out in the comments.
- Question biases in the media and mainstream narratives, including misogynistic online accounts with a large followership. Comment and report on platforms if you see problematic, victim blaming content.
- Assure those close to you that you can help and be a listening ear if they are affected by traumatic experiences.
*Name has been changed.