Cyber misogyny: the new frontier for hate

On August 3, 2013, 14-year-old Hannah Smith hanged herself in her bedroom. In the weeks leading up to her death, Hannah was subjected to cruel taunts and insults about her weight and a family death on Ask.fm, a question and answer social networking site that allows anonymous participation. According to Hannah’s father, she went to Ask.fm to look for advice on the skin condition eczema. Instead, she got bullies on Ask.fm urging her to drink bleach and cut herself.

Last week, I started a series about the different ways sexism is impacting girls and women today and how feminism can be utilized to help them. This is the second post in that series. This post is about cyber misogyny.

In many ways, cyber misogyny is an old issue taken to new extremes. Sexual harassment, domestic violence, hate speech, stalking and threats have long been problems for women. However, in real space, where people’s identities are known, it is easier to identify and punish abusers. The Internet offers expanded opportunities to perpetuate harassment and abuse. At the same time, it allows abusers to avoid social and legal consequences for their actions by hiding behind anonymity. In its report “#CyberMisogyny: Using and strengthening Canadian legal responses to gendered hate and harassment online” West Coast LEAF calls the Internet “the new frontier for hate.”

The term cyber misogyny encompasses a wide range of conduct. In this post, I will discuss the five types of online violence discussed in West Coast LEAf’s report.

  • Revenge porn

Revenge porn can loosely be described as the non-consensual distribution of intimate images. Revenge porn is often associated with the termination of an intimate relationship and is disturbingly common. According to the US-based Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, one in ten ex-partners has threatened to expose a risqué photo of their ex. Sixty per cent of them follow through. Ninety per cent of victims are women.

It is not only teenagers who are affected by revenge porn. This year, well known celebrities including Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton and Kirsten Dunst had intimate photos stolen and released publically. In Canada, the Associate Chief Justice of the Court of Queen’s Bench of Manitoba had nude photos taken by her husband posted online without her consent.

Revenge porn is so prevalent numerous websites exist for the sole purpose of ruining people’s lives by posting embarrassing photos or forwarding them to family members, friends and business contacts. Because of websites like these and the hundreds of thousands of daily viewers, women have lost jobs, economic opportunities and personal relationships.

Studies by Cyber Civil Rights show that 47 per cent of revenge porn victims contemplate suicide. Ninety-three per cent suffer significant emotional distress.

  • Sexting

Sexting is the sending of sexy, nude or partially nude photos via cell phone. Recent studies show that sexting has become a fairly common practice among young people as part of their sexual exploration. In a study involving students in grades 4-11 across Canada, researchers found that eight per cent of students in grades 7-11 with access to a cell phone have sent a sext. Twenty-four per cent have received a sext. The numbers rise as students get older.

While youth seem to feel ok about sending sexual images of themselves to others, when those images are forwarded without their consent, the results can be devastating. Just under one quarter of teens who said they had sent a sext of themselves reported that the person who received the sext forwarded it to someone else.  Several teen suicides have been linked to the forwarding of nude photos and the resulting harassment and abuse.

  • Online sexual exploitation of children and youth

Online child sexual exploitation includes child pornography, luring, child prostitution, child sex tourism and child trafficking. The number of child sexual exploitation reports received by Cybertip.ca, a national tipline for reporting online sexual exploitation of youth, has increased from 179 reports in 2002/2003 to 7,913 reports in 2009/2010.

The vast majority (90.2 per cent) of reports between September 2002 and June 2010 pertained to child pornography.

  • Cyberstalking

Cyberstalking includes monitoring email communications, sending abusive messages, sending viruses, using the victim’s online identity to send false messages to others and using online sites to collect a victim’s personal information and whereabouts.

Technology, including social networking sites and global positioning systems, facilitate stalking behaviour by making it easier for perpetrators to keep tabs on the activities and location of their targets.

These technologies also make it more difficult for victims of domestic violence to escape their abuser. Electronic communications now play a role in nine out of ten domestic violence situations.

Statistics from the U.S. Justice Department suggest that 850,000 American adults, mostly women, are targets of cyberstalking each year. A study of youth conducted by MTV found that more than half surveyed had experienced abuse through social and digital media. Seventy-six per cent felt that digital abuse was a serious problem for people their age.

  • Hate speech

Messages promoting hate and glorifying violence against women proliferate on the Internet. Unfortunately, thanks to a recent amendment to the federal Human Rights Act, gender-based hate speech is no longer prohibited under Canadian federal law.

Sadly, it is not uncommon for outspoken feminists to be threatened with rape and murder for their online presence. In 2007, well-known blogger and software developer Kathy Sierra shut down her blog and cancelled public appearances after she was subjected to threats of rape and strangulation and her personal information, including her address and social security number, were leaked. This year, feminist blogger Anita Sarkeesian cancelled an appearance at Utah State University after an email threatened the deadliest school shooting in American history.

In 2006, a study showed that individuals writing under female names received twenty-five times more sexually threatening and malicious comments than those writing under male names.

Unfortunately, cyber misogyny in its many forms is too often trivialized by the public. Many consider online bullying an inconvenience that should simply be ignored. Others respond that “boys will be boys,” especially on the Internet. This leaves women with a stark choice: tolerate the abuse or opt out of life online.

So what can we do, as feminists, to protect women and girls from the serious repercussions of cyber misogyny? According to West Coast LEAF, the varied nature of cyber misogyny means that there is no quick fix, and a wide range of strategies will be required. Three such strategies are information gathering, law reform and public education.

  • Information gathering

In order to create effective solutions, we need to fully understand the problem. West Coast LEAF recommends the government create a new office housed within the federal Ministry on the Status of Women to conduct research, facilitate dialogue and make recommendations to government about appropriate legal responses to cyber misogyny.

  • Law reform

A major contributor to the prevalence of cyber misogyny is that on the Internet, lawlessness reigns. Holding harassers and hatemongers legally accountable for their actions is one way to educate the public and send a strong message that these behaviours will not be tolerated.

On December 9, 2014, Bill C-13, the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act, became law. This legislation makes it a criminal offence to knowingly publish, distribute, transmit, sell, make available or advertise intimate images. The Bill also provides courts the authority to order the seizure of intimate images and to order the custodian of the computer system on which the image is made available to delete the material. Only time will tell, but one major impediment to the effectiveness of this legislation is that it only applies to Canadian servers.

Unfortunately, in addition to these important cyberbullying provisions, the Bill also includes broad law enforcement provisions which have raised significant privacy concerns and are likely unconstitutional.

While the cyberbullying provisions of Bill C-13 are a step in the right direction, they are not enough. As we’ve seen in the areas of domestic violence and sexual assault, criminal law is often not an effective means of addressing violence against women. Criminal convictions are rare and often come at a significant personal cost to the victim. As such, we should be exploring other legal options that are more victim-friendly.

As an example, provincial governments could enact legislation creating a “cyberbullying” tort which would allow victims to sue for cyberbullying. This way, victims could receive monetary compensation for the harms experienced.

Provincial governments could also follow Nova Scotia’s lead and amend Education Acts to create a legislated duty on principals, vice-principals and teachers to take disciplinary action in cases of harassment and abuse, whether it occurs on or off school property, when such behaviour has a negative impact on students’ ability to feel safe and learn at school.

The federal government should also reinstate the hate speech provision of the Canadian Human Rights Act repealed in June.

  • Education

Another way to promote a culture of respect, acceptance and ethical behaviour in schools is to make sure that human rights and non-discrimination are an essential part of the school curricula throughout a child’s education. Education about good “digital citizenship” is also crucial.

Jessica Logan, an Ohio high school senior, ended her life after her ex-boyfriend forwarded a nude photo of her to everyone at her school. For months Jessica was cruelly harassed by the other girls at her school who called her a slut and a whore. Her mother found her hanging in her closet on July 3, 2008.

Jessica Logan, Hannah Smith, Hope Witsell, Rehtaeh Parsons, Amanda Todd, and others ended their lives because of the effects of cyber misogyny. It is time we took this issue seriously. In case you needed another reason why we still need feminism, this is it.

-Kaity

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Lest we forget: Harper’s war on Canadian rights and freedoms

Today is Remembrance Day, a day we remember the men and women who have served and continue to serve our country during times of war, conflict and peace; men and women who sacrificed their lives “for their homes and families and friends, for a collection of traditions they cherished and a future they believed in.”

We often take for granted the values and freedoms we enjoy as Canadians: the freedom of speech, the freedom to dissent, the right to privacy, the right to choose our government. Canadians who went off to war, did so in the belief that those values were being threatened. And so they went to fight in distant lands to defend those values.

Ironically, the biggest threat to these values does not lie in distant lands. It does not take the shape of religious extremists or communists or weapons of mass destruction. The biggest threat to Canadian rights and freedoms lies at home. While we take time to honour the service and sacrifice of men and women who have fought to preserve our values, our own government is systematically dismantling the very rights and freedoms that make us Canadian.

The Right to Vote

The right to choose our government lies at the heart of Canadian democracy. It is so significant it is enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Despite its importance, the Harper Government has recently taken steps to take the fundamental right to vote away from certain Canadians.

The so-called “Fair Elections Act” strengthens voting identification requirements by banning the use of Voter Information Cards as corroborating documentation. It also eliminates the practice of vouching, by which a qualified elector may prove her identity by taking an oath and being vouched for by another qualified elector. In the last election, this process was relied on by 100,000 Canadians who did not have sufficient ID to meet the voter identification rules.

The alleged purpose of the Fair Elections Act is to cut down on voter fraud. That seems like a legitimate purpose, except that there was no evidence that voter fraud by vouching was a problem. A recent Elections Canada report found that just 0.4 per cent of ballots cast in 2011 had irregularities due to vouching – of which the vast majority were cases of misfiled paperwork, not misidentified voters.   This has led critics to conclude that the real goal is to supress the votes of citizens who are less likely to vote Conservative.

Evidence from the United States indicates that stricter identification requirements do in fact keep qualified voters from voting. In particular, elderly, minority, low-income and homeless citizens are more likely to lack the required identity documents. Without vouching, these citizens’ right to vote may effectively evaporate.

Freedom to Dissent

Another extremely important right in a democracy is the freedom to disagree with the government and to freely communicate that dissent. In Canada, we have many non-profit organizations on both sides of the political spectrum who advocate for changes to law and policy. But lately, something has gone awry.

The supposedly non-political Canada Revenue Agency (“CRA”) has used special funds provided by the government to investigate organizations with tax-free charitable status to ensure they are not devoting more than the legal limit of 10 per cent of their resources to advocacy activities. But that’s not the problem. What is, is the fact that virtually all of the organizations that have been investigated, from the Suzuki Foundation to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, have been on the “progressive” end of the political spectrum.

There are plenty of charitable entities on the right- from the Fraser Institute to the Canadian Constitution Foundation- but so far none of them have attracted the interest of the CRA.

The Broadbent Institute recently issued a study of ten of these right-leaning charities. The study found that all ten claim they devote zero per cent of their resources to political activity. The published work of the organizations would suggest otherwise. Has the CRA been interested in these inconsistencies? Nope.

NPD’s Murray Rankin asked Revenue Minister Kerry-Lynne Finlay about this apparently unequal treatment:

“We have seen the Conservatives go after environmentalists, human rights groups, international development groups and yes, even bird-watchers — pretty well anyone who may disagree with them. However, a new report suggests that right-wing charities get a different ride. Annual filings from 10 right-wing charities showed no political activities on their part; none, in spite of the fact that their websites are full of advocacy. Can the minister explain this double standard?”

In response, the Minister simply denied a political motive and then tried to obfuscate the issue by randomly scolding Rankin for asking the question.

The Right to Privacy

Quick on the heels of the high-profile deaths of Rehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd, the Harper Government introduced a bill to address cyber-bullying and online crime. Women’s organizations, including West Coast LEAF, have identified cyber misogyny as a serious problem and have made recommendations for ways in which Canadian law and policy can be strengthened to better protect the equality rights of women, girls and other vulnerable communities online.

But despite being named the “Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act,” the bill is only tangentially about online harassment. Really, it is a surveillance bill. Most of the bill is devoted to expanding the state’s powers over the search and seizure of personal Internet data. It would give police and state access to Canadians’ data and online activities without a warrant by granting complete civil and criminal immunity to telecommunication companies that voluntarily grant police access to personal information.

Think this won’t affect you? Think again. In 2011, government agencies asked telecommunications companies to voluntarily hand over data in 1.2 million cases. Between April 2012 and March 2013, telecommunications companies received 18,849 “voluntary” requests from just one government department: the Canada Border Services Agency. Ninety-nine per cent of those requests had no judicial authorization. The companies provided information in 99.98 per cent of cases. With a no-liability guarantee, it is reasonable to expect telecommunications companies to be even less likely to say no.

This bill is likely unconstitutional, since the Supreme Court of Canada recently ruled that the voluntary disclosure of subscriber information to the police violates the Charter, but the Harper Government has no intention to amend it.

With a government that has gone after environmentalists, human rights groups, international development groups and even bird-watchers, there is no knowing whose privacy will be at risk.

Freedom of Information

There are few issues more fundamental to democracy than the right of the public to access information produced by government scientists and researchers. “We as a society cannot make informed choices about critical issues if we are not fully informed about the facts.”

Unfortunately for Canadians, the attack on information has become one of the trademarks of the Harper Government. Take for example the decision in July 2010 to cut the mandatory long form census and replace it with a voluntary one. Along with the long form census, researchers and citizens alike lost important data on shifting population trends and changes in the quality of life of Canadians; data that is a vital precursor to good public policy.

In 2012, the federal budget revealed further and more drastic attacks on the right of Canadians to be informed. For instance, fifty per cent of Stats Canada employees were warned that their jobs were at risk and a number of research bodies were vaporized, including the National Roundtable on the Environment, the First Nations Statistical Institute, the National Council on Welfare and the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science.

At the same time the Harper Government was cutting resources for research, it was also tightening the media protocols applied to federal scientists. Federal scientists now routinely require political approval before they can speak to the media about their scientific findings. Particularly strict rules apply to issues of climate change and oil sands.

In a recent survey of federal scientists, only ten per cent said they were allowed to speak freely without constraints about the work they do at their department or agency. By contrast, 24 per cent said they have been asked to exclude or alter technical information in government documents for non-scientific reasons.

Why should this concern us? Because, we are being denied access to information that we need to make informed decisions about how we conduct ourselves and how we act politically. And, some of this information impacts our health and safety. In the survey of federal scientists, 50 per cent of respondents said they were aware of “cases where health and safety of Canadians” or environmental sustainability has been compromised because of political interference with their scientific work. And in this climate of fear, 71 per cent agreed that “our ability to develop policy, law and programs that are based on scientific evidence and facts has been compromised by political interference.”

Lest We Forget

The Harper Government’s war on Canadian rights and freedoms has at times been sly. Laws, believed to be unconstitutional, have been slipped into omnibus budget bills or given misleading titles reminiscent of George Orwell’s doublethink in the dystopian novel 1984. But the changes have not gone unnoticed. If my newsfeed is any indication, citizens across the country are aware that their beloved institutions are changing, and not for the better. We have an election coming up, and it is my hope that these attacks on our most valued rights and freedoms will not be forgotten.

In the meantime, I plan to reflect this Remembrance Day on the values I hold dear, and what I can do to stop being complacent while the rights and freedoms of my fellow Canadians are under attack.

“We must remember. If we do not, the sacrifice of those one hundred thousand Canadian lives will be meaningless.”

-Kaity