As Canada prepares to introduce legislation to better combat an ever-growing volume of hate online, a national nonprofit is working to ensure the disproportionate impact on women and people of various gender identities is known.
Informed Opinions launched its Toxic Hush campaign this month, with some disturbing early results from an ongoing investigation documenting online harassment and hate.
Of more than 200 people surveyed, 56% said they had been the victim of online insults or insults, 19% said they had been physically threatened and 11% said they had been the victim of sexual threats.
Shari Graydon is the director of Informed Opinions, which works to amplify the voices of women and people of diverse gender identities. She said while online hate was increasing across the board, it was particularly harmful for women with intersectional identities.
“Unregulated online hate threatens equality gains that have taken decades to be achieved and undermines democracy in the process,” she said in a press release.
Online harassment and threats have real consequences, she told Black Press Media.
“The current scenario means that many women are denied freedom of expression because others exercise hate speech that locks them in, scares them, disconnects them, denies them opportunities to come forward .”
As part of their Toxic Hush campaign, Informed Opinions held a citizens’ tribunal in June, where five women had the opportunity to share their experiences online. Many, Graydon said, turned down the offer for fear of increased harassment.
Rohini Arora, social justice advocate and director of organizing and campaigns for the BC Federation of Labour, was one of the women who decided to speak out.
She told the court about her experiences on Facebook, where she said an influx of friend requests and unwanted messages from strangers quickly taught her how exposed she was online. In one instance, she said someone had targeted her with a public post making false and slanderous statements.
“My femininity, my identity, my religion, my appearance, my dress, my personal life and my traumas were all open topics of discussion, and my life became the butt of many jokes,” Arora wrote in her statement.
She said the comments that followed were filled with misogyny, discrimination and sexual violence.
“At first I was in shock. I couldn’t sleep, I had physical symptoms like chest pain, heart palpitations, prolonged sadness, hair loss, nausea, I was hyper conscious, and then I had to deal with the heightened anxiety that came with hyper-consciousness,” she wrote.
For years, the experience kept Arora from seeking public access opportunities or posting material online.
In the Informed Opinions survey, 28% of people said they had changed what they posted online and how often, and 18% said they feared for their physical safety.
If they choose to go to the police about it, they’re told there’s not much law enforcement can do, Graydon said. She heard women say that the police just advised them to stay off the internet.
The amount of action police can take, however, could change as the federal government works on a national action plan to combat hate and considers changes to the Criminal Code and Human Rights Act. The Liberals’ first 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 that by conducting her investigation and perhaps more citizens’ courts, the informed opinions can help guide this legislation and ensure social media platforms are held accountable. They are also working on an app that would collect data on an ongoing basis.
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British ColumbiaCanadaHate crimesHate promotionSocial media