7 Feb 2018

    This Is What Online Harassment Is Like For Australian Women

    "After a while it starts to redefine your self-worth."

    Australian environmentalist and wildlife advocate Elissa Sursara has strong opinions about protecting nature, and for this she faces almost constant abuse online.

    When she crewed with an anti-poaching group patrolling the Antarctic for whaling vessels she was labelled an "extremist" by strangers on social media.

    "I'll be attacked [for] just about anything," the 29-year-old told BuzzFeed News.

    When a rumour started that she had been spotted on a date with pop star Justin Bieber, Sursara said she was "trolled and harassed for more than a year".

    There were also rumours that she had been killed during various animal encounters.

    "At one point I shut down my accounts because it was too negative and people had crossed a line into serious cyber-bullying," she said.

    Half of the Australian women surveyed in a poll released by Amnesty International today aged 18 to 24 said they had experienced online abuse or harassment.

    Around a third (30%) of the 502 women surveyed aged 18 to 55 said they had been abused or harassed online and of those, 37% said they felt like their physical safety was threatened.

    "It rattles your confidence and after a while it starts to redefine your self-worth," Sursara said. "There were times where I hadn’t slept because I’d stayed up thinking about what I was going through, and why it was me going through it.

    "It certainly makes you anxious to push forward with a new environmental campaign, or to accept a new opportunity, in case your detractors rob you of the experience."

    About two-fifths (42%) of women responding to the survey who had experienced online abuse or harassment said it was misogynistic or sexist in nature, and 20% said it had included threats of physical or sexual violence.

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    More than half (54%) of women who had experienced abuse or harassment online said it came from strangers.

    Sursara said she is more cautious online now and keeps everything she posts strictly related to activism and the environment, as opposed to her personal life.

    "I refuse to be silenced or pushed away from the causes that are important to me, and I’m not afraid to talk about things that matter to me, like climate change and deforestation and reducing our carbon footprint, even if what I have to say bothers people," she said.

    "I don’t read comments and I don’t engage with people who are trying to be negative, and certainly not with people who are trying to say negative things about others to me."

    Nearly half (48%) of survey participants who had experienced online abuse or harassment said it had included racism, sexism, homophobia or transphobia.

    Lara* gets harassed on Twitter for being a Muslim feminist.

    "A lot of people take issue with this, telling me that [being a Muslim feminist is] an oxymoron," the 25-year-old Melbourne woman told BuzzFeed News. "I get sent memes about women being stupid for being Muslim.

    "I get called things like 'cancerous cunt' and when I've tried to report it I have been told it doesn't violate [Twitter's editorial standards]."

    People have sent Lara photos of beheadings and called the prophet Muhammad a paedophile.

    "One man told me he was great at oral sex but I wouldn't know because I have no clitoris," she said.

    Lara said the abuse has been "upsetting" and she doesn't feel protected online.

    "When there are times I am receiving a lot of messages I won't check my notifications."

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    Of those who said they had faced online abuse or harassment, 62% said they had experienced lower self-esteem, or loss of self-confidence, as a result, and 59% said they had experienced stress, anxiety or panic attacks after the abuse.

    In 2011, when *Matilda was about to start high school, she opened up to an anonymous internet forum about the fact she had been harassed by an older man online.

    "At some point my identity was figured out via Twitter," she said. "People on the forum said that I wanted this man to say creepy things to me."

    Many of the forum's users called her an attention seeker and threatened to dox – publish private details about – her if she didn't prove the harassment was real by following through on her claims and telling the police about the older man's behaviour.

    "I was obviously very terrified of getting doxed and scared that my mum would blame me for it,'' she said.

    The survey found the abuse and harassment had silenced women in online spaces — 40% either ceased or decreased their use of the platforms, as was the case for Matilda, who is now very apprehensive about sharing her real name online.

    "Which sucks because I'm an artist and I kind of need to use my real name if I want to be a professional," she said.

    "I'm also way more careful about who I open up to in general, even about very serious things that demand attention, just because I don't want anyone to dox me or harass me or anything."

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    About one in 14 (7%) survey participants who had experienced online abuse or harassment had experienced the posting of intimate images of themselves online without their consent.

    Facebook accounts were used by 82% of respondents, with more than half of those (43%) posting on the platform regularly, and about a third (32%) using their accounts to keep up with goings-on, while not posting regularly.

    A quarter of survey respondents (25%) have a Twitter account, although fewer than half (12%) are active users (regular browsers) and only a third of those (4%) post regularly.

    “This is not something that goes away when you log off," Amnesty International technology and human rights researcher Azmina Dhrodia said.

    "Imagine getting death threats or rape threats when you open an app, or living in fear of sexual and private photos being shared online without your consent."

    The survey sample was designed to be nationally representative of women in Australia and the margin of error for the total sample is 4%, Amnesty International said.

    *Names changed to protect privacy.

    Gina Rushton is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.

    Contact Gina Rushton at gina.rushton@buzzfeed.com.

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