Misogyny only a part of online abuse problem, and ‘sorry’ isn’t enough

Online abuse that can reach extreme levels is rife online, in New Zealand and internationally. Some label it things like misogyny or sexism or racism or anti-religious or political – any of these things can be involved, but the motives can vary, and can often be difficult to define.

Abuse can be nasty, it goes to the extent of threatening the well being and even the lives of targets – and to an extent reflects awful levels of real life abuse and violence.

In part abuse is an attempt to discredit people, to shut them up, or to drive them off public media platforms.

Most of the abuse comes from people acting anonymously.

Anna Connell (RNZ) ‘I am sorry you can’t freely express yourself’

I feel that same frustration and anger about what Lani Wendt Young has gone through. An LGBT rights advocate and author, and survivor of child sexual abuse, she has used social media to openly discuss these issues. She has also filed over 800 screenshots of abuse and threats she’s received for doing so.

Despite going to the police and asking Facebook to remove these comments, there haven’t been any real consequences.

Theoretically, those on the receiving end of online abuse are offered some protection here under the Harmful Digital Communications Act. Netsafe is the approved agency responsible for dealing with complaints made under the Act but are not an enforcement agency.

After a complaint is investigated, a court order can be sought. In response to Ms Wendt-Young’s complaints, New Zealand police said they took the issue seriously. However, based on her experience, it seems they feel pretty powerless in the face of the swelling volume of online abuse.

Facebook has made noises about wanting users to feel safer and have reportedly hired 10,000 more moderators to review reports of abuse – but they don’t have a great track record on this issue.

Facebook is one of the worst platforms for abuse, largely due to the huge number of people using it and the ease with which anonymous people can use it.

It seems no one is resourced or equipped to deal with the speed and volume at which abuse can be hurled and threats laid bare online. Not the creators of the platforms, the agencies tasked with investigating complaints, the police, nor the courts.

It seems an insurmountable problem – perpetrators can number in the thousands and, in many instances, hide behind anonymous or fake profiles. It seems beyond regulation and the reach of the law.

It is largely beyond regulation and the reach of the law. Vexatious and malicious litigation is used as a form of attack, as I have found out with no misogyny or racism or sexism involved, it was just nasty arses taking a misconstrued grudge against me and abusing legal processes. One of them was recently convicted of other abuses (criminal harassment) but that took over three years to get through the courts, and attacks and harassment continued against myself and others while they faced charges.

For a long time people used to say, ‘It’s all about the conversation,’ on social media. Many of us had an idealistic view of the force for good it could be in our world. But I think we’ve laboured under that misapprehension for too long now.

When presented with a smorgasbord of opinion and content, and given the tools to say what we like, to whomever we like, when we like, we can’t behave or control ourselves. We can’t conceal our hatred because we have been enabled by an almost unstoppable juggernaut to express it without thinking.

I object to the use of ‘we’. Like in offline life, most people don’t hate on others and don’t abuse others. There is a minority who abuse the openness and easy of online communications. As is common in many things, a small minority can spoil things for the majority.

It is made worse when prominent people engage in online abuse – especially when the president of the United States abuses his power and media reach in attacking people he disagrees with. This extremely poor example is widely condemned, but it is also fervently supported by a large minority.

To Ms Wendt Young, I say sorry.

I am sorry you can’t freely express yourself without being subjected to a torrent of hatred and abuse. I am sorry the law can’t protect you adequately. I am sorry a force exists in our world that now seems impossible to regulate. I am sorry for not having something more constructive to say. Most of all I am sorry that when asking our fellow humankind to regulate their behaviour, they cannot.

Saying sorry may make Anna Connell feel like they are at least providing support for a solitary victim of online abuse, but it will take far more than that to confront the levels of abuse that are rife online.

In part I was attacked because I confronted abusive behaviour – in response they turned on me. Eventually it has backfired on them in a number of ways and they now face some repercussions – sentenced to home detention, bankruptcy and other financial costs – but it has been costly for those who have stood up to them, It took some up to eight years to get the legal system to deal to the worst abuser only, and that has cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But for online abuse and abuses to be dealt with it takes a lot more than saying sorry. Despite an inadequate NZ legal system – an appeal I’m currently involved in has just been adjourned, which favours the abuser – people who can have to make stands against the abusers.

What isn’t happening yet to any extent is for the legal system to make appropriate signals of disapproval of online abuse. In my case the abuser hasn’t said sorry, he is not only unrepentant, he (and associates) continues his ‘lawfare’.

A review of the New Zealand legal system was recently initiated. Getting involved in that is one way of trying to deal with the problem. It’s better than just saying sorry.

Confronting online abuse

I think many people were quite shocked by what they heard.

Much of the contact is anonymous. People use fake names and hide behind their keyboards. A friend of mine calls them ‘keyboard cowards’ and I think that’s quite an apt term.

I’ve had my fair share of abuse as well.

The attacks via twitter that followed were awful. One that sticks in my mind is the woman who tweeted me and said I deserved to die.

I’ve received messages that are too vile to write about here, but most are triggered by those who feel strongly about one political party or the other. I can’t post the most abusive feedback.

For others, it can wear you down, it can make you think about what you do and why you do it, and it can make you worry about who’s living in our communities – so much anger, so much hatred.

The sad reality is that there’s no way to stop it. Not at the moment.

But at the moment, technology is developing at a far greater pace than the checks and balances that should be in place to protect people. Maybe in the future that might change. But I don’t think we should hold our breath.

Those comments could apply to many situations (read this link for specifics).

We shouldn’t hold our breath. Those who care should do something about it, confront bullying and abusive behaviour, and take the fight to the online thugs.

Most people are decent people. If enough of them speak up they will show that the abusers are a small (albeit loud) minority that can be overcome.

There’s no way to stop it but here are ways to reduce it – like more people confronting the abuse and the abusers and not letting them get way with shouting down decent discussion and debate.

There are risks, the bullies often turn and attack when confronted, but if you stay dignified and strong they usually end up backing off. Like any part of society it’s up to good people to stand up and not allow an abusive few ruin our forums.

Confronting the real abuse

I have been witnessing an online campaign of abuse, false and unsubstantiated accusation, character assassination, misrepresentation of identities, attempts to shut down speech, attempts to shut down organisations. It has ranged from annoying to disgraceful.

And that’s not the worst of it. Others have linked some of this to criminal and mental health histories, death threats, even incest. This is associated with people who present themselves as working against abuse – some of them are the worst of abusers.

There’s only a few people actively doing this, but they also draw in others to support them, using (and abusing) vulnerable people to promote their own agendas.

I and others have gathered evidence of all of these things, and have established identities behind it. There’s a lot of evidence.  Here’s some of what’s on the surface.

1. Cherie Nark NZ (Show NZ the Money!)

This Facebook page is a campaign to discredit and shut up and shut down a person and an organisation with a public profile. It keeps making unsubstantiated and false accusations, and unreasonable demands for information. It keeps breaching Facebook rules by using names, photos and logos and identities of others.

The biggest nonsense of this is the campaigners preach transparency while trying to remain anonymous. But the more they do the more they reveal themselves.

2. Kate (Katherine) Raue

It doesn’t take much searching to see that this person has been involved in a number of campaigns and sustained attacks on people, including the police, mayors and ex MPs.

I was involved with an exchange of comments with her on Voxy – Nark ‘falsely accused’ – where she made a disgraceful allegation that a woman was responsible for the death of her child. The comments have been removed by Voxy.

[Edit: to respect innocent people that may be tainted by association I have removed some links.

My point still stands that there has been a commonality between attacks on NARK and other attack campaigns online, and there are some identities in common that appear in different abuses and attempts to shut down information.]

There’s obvious links across these campaigns of abuse and threats, and some common names keep appearing. I’ve seen threats of legal action that never happen, threats of police action that never happens (I’ve just seen evidence that the police have no record of complaints that have been claimed).

Transparency should not just be in one direction – it’s time a light was shone on those abusive hypocrites behind this.