As Canada moves to introduce legislation to better address an ever-growing volume of online hate, a national non-profit is working to ensure the disproportionate impact on women and gender-diverse people is known.
Informed Opinions launched its Toxic Hush campaign this month, with some initial and disturbing findings from an ongoing survey documenting online harassment and hate.
Of more than 200 respondents, 56 per cent said they’ve been subject to online insults or slurs, 19 per cent said they’ve been physically threatened and 11 per cent said they’ve faced sexual threats.
Shari Graydon is the director of Informed Opinions, which works to amplify the voices of women and gender-diverse people. She said while online hate is increasing across the board, it is particularly bad for women with intersectional identities.
“Unregulated online hate is threatening equality gains that took decades to achieve, and undermining democracy in the process,” she said in a news release.
Online harassment and threats have real-world consequences, she told Black Press Media.
“The current scenario means many women don’t have freedom of speech because others are exercising hate speech that shuts them down, makes them fear, makes them go offline, makes them decline profile-raising opportunities.”
As part of their Toxic Hush campaign, Informed Opinions held a citizen tribunal in June, where five women were given the opportunity to share their online experiences. Many, Graydon said, turned down the offer out of fear of increased harassment.
Rohini Arora, a social justice advocate and director of organizing and campaigns for the BC Federation of Labour, was one of the women who did decide to speak.
She told the tribunal about her experiences on Facebook, where she said an influx of friend requests and unwanted messages from unknown men quickly taught her how exposed she was online. In one instance, she said someone targeted her with a public post making false and slanderous claims.
“My womxnhood, identity, religion, the way I looked, how I dressed, my personal life and my traumas were all topics of discussion out in the open, and my life became the butt of many jokes,” Arora wrote in her statement.
She said the ensuing comments were filled with misogyny, discrimination and sexual violence.
“Initially, I was in utter shock. I couldn’t sleep, I had physical symptoms like chest pain, heart palpitations, prolonged sadness, hair loss, nausea, I was hyper aware and then I had to deal with the heightened anxiety that came with the hyper awareness,” she wrote.
For years, the experience kept Arora from pursuing public-facing opportunities or posting things online.
In Informed Opinions’ survey, 28 per cent of people said they’ve changed what and how often they post online, and 18 per cent said they fear for their physical safety.
If they choose to go to police about it, they are told there is very little law enforcement can do, Graydon said. She’s heard from women who say police just advised them to just stay off the internet.
The amount of action police can take could change though as the federal government works on a national action plan on combating hate and considers changes to the Criminal Code and Human Rights Act. The Liberals’ initial anti-hate bill, Bill C-36, died when they called an election in 2021, but the party says it is working on a new version of it.
Graydon said she hopes by running their survey and possibly more citizens tribunals, Informed Opinions can help to guide that legislation and ensure social media platform accountability. They’re also working on an app that would collect data on an ongoing basis.