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Silence is not golden.
Online hate against women is on the rise and a new campaign, Toxic Hush, is out to give a voice to women harassed on social media platforms and other online spaces.
(Toxic Hush is a non-partisan, charitable organization that addresses critical social issues facing Canada today, including the online abuse and harassment many women face.)
Malicious online attacks are estimated to have risen 20% globally since the start of the pandemic. The United Nations Broadband Commission reports 73% of women are abused online. And close to 90% of the campaign’s survey respondents – particularly those with intersectional identities – are experiencing or witnessing an increase.
Brandi Morin, 41, has felt the hate: “Last fall, I received my first death threat in the form of an email from a sender with a pseudo name. It was vile. The person knew personal details about my life – where I reside, that I have children and details from my youth.
“I’d be lying if I stated this didn’t scare me. It did. Not only for my own safety but for the safety of my children,” says Morin, an award-winning Cree, Iroquois and French journalist from Treaty 6, Alberta. She uses Twitter and Instagram to share critical stories and her anti-racism advocacy.
“So, I called the police. They told me they couldn’t do anything unless the situation ‘escalated.’ I wondered what that meant. Escalated to what? To someone showing up at my door? To my life being threatened in person?”
“Before I hung up with the officer, she told me, ‘I’d advise you to keep your doors locked.’”
Morin is one of five women to testify at the Toxic Hush campaign’s People’s Tribunal, using her voice for those who can’t speak up. The violence needs to be named publicly, she says. “It can’t stay in the shadows lurking and waiting to pounce on other victims!”
When cellphones, social media feeds and inboxes are filled with insults, lies aimed at ruining reputations, when there are rape jokes, slut-shaming, and threats of physical and sexual violence, “it’s not surprising that a significant number of women report feeling not just angry, but anxious and fearful,” says Shari Graydon, of Informed Opinions, which is leading the campaign and research initiative to document hate’s alarming effects, and is pushing for social media platform accountability.
Unfortunately when women report tech-facilitated hate and threats to police, they’re often told just to stay off the internet, which is not possible, says Graydon. “Most of us are online daily – to do our jobs, stay connected with family, remain informed.”
Online hate is happening on an epidemic level, adds Ilana Landsberg-Lewis, human rights lawyer and women’s advocate. “And the more that women speak out online, they are targeted by perpetrators of online hate with vitriol, hate and threats explicitly directed at their identities.”
But staying quiet is toxic, there is no accountability – not from the perpetrators and not from the social media platforms, says Landsberg-Lewis. “Silence permits them all to continue and put the burden on individual victims of online hate to deal with it.
“Breaking that silence is essential to finding a solution – we need to know the nature, scale and impact of this problem to deal with it effectively,” she adds.
With no social media regulations or government policy to provide protection against online hate and cyber-violence, the online world grows more dangerous as the hate and intimidation surge, and voices are silenced.
“I have been threatened, and those threats caused me many sleepless nights… not knowing what extent people will go to – waking up at night terrified for me and my daughter,” reports testifier Birgit Umaigba, a nurse, educator and anti-racism advocate. She was ruthlessly attacked when she advocated for nurses’ rights during the pandemic.
According to Graydon, online abuse is driving women from public conversations and spheres of influence, including elected office. “That deprives them of the opportunity to build their businesses, share their research, advocate for change. And it deprives all of us of their experience-informed insights and solutions, which are critically needed to help shape policies and priorities.”
Our laws have not caught up with the age of the Internet, says Graydon, adding although we have the Charter to promote equality, non-discrimination and laws prohibiting hate speech, we have not required online providers to act accordingly.
The Toxic Hush campaign is supported by both the Government of Canada and concerned members of the public. “Right now, the government is developing laws to address online hate – we have a small window and we need to hear from women,” adds Graydon.
(To participate in the research or join the campaign, visit informedopinions.org/stophate.)
Landsberg-Lewis encourages everyone to mobilize and come together to insist that something must be done, “that there are limits on freedom of expression when it is used to promulgate hate and harm.
“And that we are a powerful, critical mass of ‘users’ of these platforms who will not stand for these discriminatory, cowardly and vicious attacks hiding behind technologically facilitated anonymity and impunity.”
The respondents to their research survey report that Twitter (31%) and Facebook (19%) are the platforms where they’re being most targeted, along with receiving abuse via email.
“The hate is toxic, and its silencing impact erodes democracy and the free and equitable public conversations on which it depends,” adds Graydon