Online abuse is everywhere, so how do we deal with it?

Just over two months ago several friends of mine were the victims in some pretty heavy online harassment. What started as rude, and quite offensive, quickly escalated into feminist bashing, brutal misogyny and rape threats.

One of the women had her tinder profile re-posted on Facebook with the comment “Stay classy ladies. I’m surprised she’d still be hungry for lunch.” This comment was made in reference to her Tinder profile picture and the tagline below that was taken from the Nicki Minaj song ‘Only’ featuring Drake – “Type of girl that will suck you dry and then eat some lunch with you.”

Her friends quickly responded calling out the original poster for the comments shaming her appearance and sexuality.

This is where things got really nasty.

In response to these women standing up for themselves one user commented “I would let her eat the sh*t off my d*ck”, “The best thing about feminists is they don’t get action so when you rape them it’s 100 times tighter” and “This is why women should have never been given rights”. Followed by direct threats of rape to the women and their families.

If this doesn’t turn your stomach I don’t know what will.

Feeling helpless the women then turned to police who didn’t really know what to do about it, responding with “He probably won’t actually follow through with these threats”.

But where does this leave the victims of online abuse and where can they go for help?

Being a woman, gendered and sexual harassment is almost a daily occurrence, if I were trans or non-binary it would be worse still. But what happens when harassment occurs online?

Offline harassment has measures in place to protect people against such acts. You can report work place abuse, tell a bouncer to kick out the creep or make a report to the police. But online harassment doesn’t seem to have the same measures, or if it does they are rarely enforced.

I recently viewed a video on Timberland’s Facebook page of a woman on a webcam chatting to a male person, about 2 seconds in, another man storms in and starts beating the woman for the rest of the clip. This act was atrocious, not to mention the comments that followed. I instantly reported the image to which Facebook responded with the message. “This video does not violate our community standards”.

The landing page of Facebook’s community standards website states “We want to make people feel safe”. This response doesn’t really assure me that Facebook is a safe space for women.

In their Bullying and Harassment section Facebook claim they will “remove content that appears to purposefully target private individuals with the intention of degrading or shaming them.” including “photos or videos of physical bullying posted to shame the victim”. In their Criminal Activity section they claim to “prohibit you from celebrating any crimes that you’ve committed.”. Under Violence and graphic content “We remove graphic images when they are shared for sadistic pleasure or to celebrate or glorify violence.”

This video violates all of these points.

If the content isn’t deemed to be in violation of the community standards Facebook advises the user to “customise and control what you see by unfollowing, blocking and hiding the posts, people, Pages and applications you don’t want to see”. This is also often the response of police, the victim is advised to alter their behaviour, not the perpetrator.

With our lives almost fully embedded in the internet it would be quite difficult for anyone to continue living a normal life without being online.

Earlier this year, respected game developer and trans-woman, Rachel Bryk, was being heavily harassed online; this is suspected to have contributed to her suicide in April. She complained about “constant transphobia” and suggestions that she should kill herself. This harassment was mostly reported to have happened on 4chan; she moved over to Reddit and found less abuse there.

4chan and Reddit both promote themselves as community moderated sites. 4chan’s “Global Rules” have very little mention to harassment, stating that posts may not violate local or US law and no reference at all to gendered or sexual abuse. Reddit on the other hand, opens it’s “Reddiquette”with “Remember the Human” and has many points on how to be a respectful participant in their forum.

LGBTIQ youth are 3 times more likely to experience online abuse. This is a huge problem for LGBTIQ people as we often need the internet to find support and access health information, safely and privately.

So should one take matters into their own hands and fight back online? My friends once told me that fighting with a troll is like rolling around in the mud with a pig – you both get dirty but the pig likes it. I think this pretty much sums it up, it is in the nature of trolls to be relentless and dehumanising.

One teen in Houston did, after being sexually abused (offline) her story was quickly turned into a meme and hashtag, spreading like wildfire, first in her school then around the world.  After her private life was made public she came to the media herself, reclaiming her autonomy and identity. The strength of this woman is commendable but has resulted in the loss of her anonymity forever. Could you imagine going for a job in your mid twenties and your future boss googling you only to find stories of your abuse?

Shortly after my friends’ Tinder/Facebook incident they formed the advocacy group Sexual Violence Won’t Be Silence (of which I am a part of) to combat online sexual and gendered harassment. Within 2 days the Facebook page had 5000 likes and now is pushing 10,000. We also formed a petition asking for the reevaluation of existing laws and further training for law enforcement officers that now has 15,000 signatories.

Last Thursday the accused perpetrator of the initial incident was brought to court and charged with using a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence[8]. His lawyer has asked for more time on the case and indicated that his client is likely to plead guilty.

This is a great step towards achieving our goals as a group and as a movement and this case will set the precedent for cases of online sexual harassment in Australia. This is great for us, but not all people have the opportunity to campaign for 2 months to have their case addressed legally – and shouldn’t have to.

The internet is a part of our everyday life, the way we do business, the way we socialise and the way we seek help. These spaces need to have measures in place and enforced, as we have offline, to keep us safe.

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