‘In 2018 I wrote publicly about my heritage. Soon after, the anti-Semitic messages began’
Sorcha Pollak, Oct 24, 2020
THE HARASSMENT MANY WOMEN FACE ON SOCIAL MEDIA HAS BECOME FRIGHTENINGLY NORMALISED. ONLINE ABUSE OF WOMEN MUST BE TACKLED, BY LAW AND BY THE PLATFORMS THAT PUBLISH IT
In 2018 I wrote publicly for the first time about my Jewish heritage. I didn’t think twice about mentioning my Czech grandfather’s religion, it never crossed my mind that a small cohort of people would fixate on such a brief reference to my family history. Soon after, the anti-Semitic messages began – tweets, followed by some emails, a blog post, a smattering of Facebook posts, a lot more tweets.
My initial response was to laugh, but the abuse persisted. I was accused of leading a “white genocide” in this country and of being part of a national Jewish conspiracy. In August, stickers appeared on lamp-posts around Dublin with a list of names, mine included, that all had one thing in common: Jewish heritage. A month later I discovered a fake Telegram account (a messaging service with very high privacy levels, often used to disseminate unacceptable views) had been set up using my name and profile picture to post far-right opinions in closed groups. I wasn’t laughing anymore. I felt uneasy and, admittedly, scared. The abuse I’ve suffered as a female journalist is not unusual. The harassment many women face on social media has become frighteningly normalised in recent years.
Earlier this month, an online conference organised by the European Parliament and the National Women’s Council (NWC) heard that online targeted abuse was “directly silencing women”. Colm O’Gorman of Amnesty International Ireland warned that online harassment was being accepted as “the new norm” and said people had lost sight of its “devastating impact on people’s lives”. This “unrelenting abuse” has started affecting women’s “freedom of expression”, says NWC director Orla O’Connor. “We know this is having an enormous impact on women’s participation in society, be it in politics or other sectors. There are much wider implications for democracy when women are reluctant to come forward for fear of the abuse they will suffer.”
Hazel Chu, Lord Mayor of Dublin, admits she almost left politics because of the vitriol she, and her family, have suffered online. She recalls her partner discovering her crying on the floor when he arrived home from work one day.
LORD MAYOR HAZEL CHU AT THE MANSION HOUSE IN DUBLIN. PHOTOGRAPH: ALAN BETSON
I’d just got my fourth phone call from a person breathing loudly down the phone. It had transitioned from online into real life. In that moment my worry was what if this person on the phone shows up at my door or goes to my daughter’s creche.” Chu says she is regularly told to just ignore the online harassment. “I’ve had so many male colleagues and prominent public speakers tell me it’s just social media, you can’t pay attention.
But online moves into real life very quickly. While the majority [of abuse] will stay online, there’s always one or two who will think about what else they can do.” 'I don’t mind taking criticism of my work, but if someone is being really abusive on a personal level there’s not much you can do except block or remove' Criminal legislation is needed to ensure women can post their views on social media platforms without fearing threats of sexual assault and violence, says Chu. “Any public figure, anyone in a public role, could face another Jo Cox [the murdered UK MP] incident. People might say that’s dramatic, that I’m scare-mongering, but why does it take the memory of someone’s brutal murder to put protections in place?”
Fianna Fáil Councillor Lisa Chambers, who has spoken about the “personalised abuse” women endure online, says female politicians are no longer targeted solely because of the clothes they wear or the sound of their voice. They’re harassed about “every element of their political life”. “I don’t mind taking criticism of my work, but if someone is being really abusive on a personal level there’s not much you can do except block or remove. “This shouldn’t be accepted as part of the job and we shouldn’t have to tell other women coming into politics they’ll have to deal with this.” Like Chu, she fears online threats evolving into real-life confrontations. “Politicians are so accessible in this country, people know where you are all the time. We have this false sense of security that Ireland is a lovely place and bad things don’t happen here. But we need to be more vigilant.”
FELICIA OLUSANAYA, AKA FELISPEAKS, A SPOKEN WORD ARTIST WHO HAS RECEIVED DEATH THREATS. PHOTOGRAPH: ALAN BETSON
Ongoing research by NUI Galway has found nearly three-quarters of Irish female Oireachtas members and councillors surveyed were threatened with physical violence via social media. Nearly 40 per cent said they were threatened with rape or sexual violence, while one in five worried about their family’s safety.
Tom Felle, head of journalism and communications at NUIG, says female politicians have become targets of “orchestrated campaigns of abusive messages” and “threats of sexual violence and death threats”. Social media platforms should be held “criminally responsible” for abuse posted on their sites and face “fines running into the millions” if they fail to act against threats of violence, he says.
“We should be concerned because we need greater numbers of women in politics, not fewer.”
The abuse women suffer online spreads far beyond the realm of politics. Spoken-word artist Felicia Olusanya, known as Felispeaks, who appeared on an RTÉ Prime Time special broadcast earlier this month, mentally prepares for the racially charged hostility she inevitably receives whenever her work is publicised. She was not surprised when a stream of abusive messages emerged following that TV performance.
'There needs to be consequences for this type of behaviour. You shouldn’t have to wait for someone to threaten to kill you before gardaí take a mild interest in what’s going on'
In September, Olusanya received a death threat by email from a stranger. She reported the message to gardaí and was called back to give a full statement a few days later. She says a garda suggested she contact a friend who worked in IT to track down the perpetrator’s IP address.
“He said it would be quicker if we found the IP address. When I emailed it to the garda he came back and said it wasn’t sufficient, they needed more details. I didn’t reply. I was exhausted and felt like suddenly I had to be part of the police force in order to get things done.
“It makes you wonder is it even worth making the complaint? There needs to be consequences for this type of behaviour. You shouldn’t have to wait for someone to threaten to kill you before gardaí take a mild interest in what’s going on.”
WRITERS TARA FLYNN AND HER HUSBAND CARL AUSTIN. PHOTOGRAPH: ALAN BETSON
Comedian and writer Tara Flynn says there is a perception women are being “oversensitive” and “can’t suck it up”. Flynn deleted her Twitter and Facebook accounts after suffering a barrage of online attacks when she spoke publicly about her abortion for the Repeal the Eighth Amendment campaign. Her husband has also been repeatedly targeted with racist threats. “When your family gets mentioned it’s like, all bets are off. It’s the energy behind the writing that is worrying. If someone is taking the time out of their day to direct harm towards you, that’s real.” Flynn believes a “multi-pronged approach” consisting of legal measures and proper responsibility from social media companies is needed to address this behaviour. The public can also punish online platforms by leaving, she adds. If a pub owner sees a patron harassing other customers, that person will be thrown out, says Flynn. “If that publican didn’t take the situation into their own hands you wouldn’t stay in the pub. We’ve got to treat online like offline. It’s the local pub, the village square.” 'We want misogyny named in legislation as a clear ground for this abuse. If it’s not there, we’re not fully capturing the impact of this abuse'
Irish legislation has an important role to play in combating online abuse. Last year, a public consultation on hate speech and hate crime attracted more than 200 written submissions and more than 3,500 survey responses. A second consultation and review of the 1989 Incitement to Hatred Act were planned for earlier this year. However, this was put on hold because of Covid-19. In June, the Government said it would introduce hate crime legislation within 12 months and update the 1989 Act. A spokesman says the Government is “committed to tackling abusive behaviour in all forms” and that the “standards of what is unacceptable in an online setting must be consistent with those in traditional settings”. The Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill remains a priority and will be published following consideration by Government, he said. Advocacy groups calling for the introduction of hate crime legislation have underlined the need for “robust definitions” around what constitutes a hate crime and agree that online abuse must be included in any change in law. “We want misogyny named in legislation as a clear ground for this abuse,” says Orla O’Connor. “If it’s not there, we’re not fully capturing the impact of this abuse.” Sinéad Gibney, chief commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, says the State must examine how these online conversations are “being monetised and polarised, and actively question the responsibilities of platforms to their users”. Cindy Southworth, head of women’s safety at Facebook, says the company is tackling the online harassment of women “through technology that identifies and removes potentially abusive content, by enforcing strict policies and by talking with experts and people experiencing abuse”. Facebook has developed features using artificial intelligence to help prevent people from seeing bullying content in the first place and in July 2020 announced “stricter action on abusive behaviour”. The social media platform says it will “always remove rape threats” and “disable profiles and accounts that make severe rape threats when we are made aware of them”.
A Twitter spokeswoman says it is working with the Department of Media in developing the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill and that the company believes “Ireland has the opportunity to establish international best practice in this space”. Twitter has “clear abusive behaviour and hateful conduct policies in place that apply to everyone”, she says. More than half of the harmful tweets the platform takes action on are “proactively surfaced using technology” rather than relying on people to make reports themselves, she adds.
Despite the claims from social media giants of advancements in AI tracking, women must continue to report hateful messages. When Chu receives the next tweet describing her daughter as a “mongrel” – as has happened before – she will have to contact Twitter. When Felispeaks is racially targeted for her latest piece of spoken-word poetry, she will be the one to contact Twitter.
And when the next anti-Semitic tweet is sent my way, undoubtedly in response to this article, I will once again click that arrow in the top right corner, scroll down, and highlight “block”. Block. Report. And breathe.
Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter with a particular interest in news concerning immigrant communities living in Ireland