20 Jul 2016

'I had photos sent to me of dead babies'

9:15 am on 20 July 2016

A parenting columnist says she's been told she "should be raped" and sent photos of dead babies - and other women with an online presence say harassment has become a scary norm.

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A study of 500 New Zealand women has found 72 percent experienced online harassment. Photo: 123RF

A new study led by security company Norton, in which 500 women took part, has found 72 percent of New Zealand women under 30 experience online harassment.

One in four women said they had received threats relating to death, rape and sexual assaults.

Around one in nine women said they had reported harassment to the police.

Emily Writes has a blog on which she mostly pens entries about motherhood. She writes about breast feeding, her child sleeping through the night and other normal "mum stuff".

"Yet it doesn't really matter what you write about," she said. "You're at risk of men becoming sort of fixated with you. Or just taking time out of their day to tell you, you know - you're a fat slut, or something like that."

"I have had a period where I had photos sent to me of dead babies... and Facebook wouldn't ban the person who sent them to me."

She said the study's findings were incredibly sad and sobering, but unsurprising.

"My entire time that I've been online, I've had variations of abuse and harassment... and that's only escalated since having a higher profile.

"I think that a lot of women, even when they don't have a profile, get abused and harassed particularly on platforms on Twitter, where the security in place isn't good and Twitter doesn't care about protecting women from harassers."

Ms Writes said she always received some level of abuse and it was tiring being told to ignore the comments.

"I often see with women on Twitter or Facebook... when they're attacked, there isn't a lot of sympathy for them.

"And I think that's why this isn't changing, and that's why it's reaching these epidemic levels because women are being blamed for the harassment they're getting."

She said she had lost faith in alerting police after nothing was done when she reported very specific threats in 2011.

"Now it doesn't necessarily have the same impact for me as it used to, but it never stops being terrible."

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Around one in four women from the survey had received threats relating to death, rape and sexual assaults. Photo: 123RF

Pollyanne Pena works for the Wellington Young Feminists Collective, and said the organisation frequently banned people from commenting on their Facebook page.

"I don't know what it is but there's something that attracts people and it tends to be - looking at the banned users lists - young guys to say just really like gross, inappropriate stuff for no apparent reason.

"It's not linked to anything that we post... it's not because we're getting more traffic or anything at the moment.

"These people... I don't know, it's like a sport to post something really derogatory on a feminist page. At the moment, we're not posting a lot and we're still getting it but when we're at the sort of peak of that, the comments can get quite personal or people can sort of try and message you directly and say, you know, hey eff you, I hope something really unpleasant happens to you."

She said it was affronting at first, but now she felt quite desensitised to it.

"You try and maybe have a laugh about it and you know, debrief with a friend and that sort of thing. But yeah, it's prevalent and it happens.

"I think the only way that we're dealing with it now is the instant we see something like that, we just have to block the person from the page and that's the end of that."

Ms Pena said having an online presence was important, yet women had to pay the price.

"You have to field derogatory comments, you have to hear and bear witness to really gross stuff... you know, just for existing and being online."

Netsafe executive director Martin Cockery said the study's findings didn't shock him.

"The online space is just rife with abuse and harassment at a low to moderate level. And then there's quite a significant amount of serious abuse and harassment online.

"Until quite recently, you know we haven't had the tools in place to combat the issue. But hopefully with the development of the Harmful Digital Communications Act, more people will feel they can come forward and something will happen as a result of coming forward."

He thought online harassment had become common to the point where people wrote it off as being "no big deal".

"But, you know, you could say the same things about racism and sexism in the past... and you know, people said it was the norm, so people said there was nothing that could be done about it.

"But it doesn't have to be normative, we certainly can create a better online space for everybody."

Police said they did take cyber bullying seriously, and pointed to the Harmful Digital Communication Act which came into force in July last year.

Kelly Knight from the police's National High Tech Crime Group said 38 charges had been laid and 45 warnings had been issued so far under the Act.

Of those charged, eight have been convicted and sentenced, six have been convicted and are awaiting sentencing, one has been dealt with in the Youth Court, one has been discharged without conviction, on got diversion and two had their charges withdrawn.

Of those charged, 37 were men. She said there didn't appear to be any trends regarding the age of the offenders, with the ages ranging from 15 to 61.

Ms Knight said cyberbullying often escalated because no one stepped in to help the victim.

"If you are a witness to cyberbullying, I urge you to show your support to the victim and tell someone who can help put a stop to it. This may be a parent, teacher, colleague or the police."

The Women's Refuge, however, was cautious about the study finding such high levels of harassment.

Its chief executive Ang Jury said she wanted to see another similar but wider reaching study done, to gauge the true extent of the problem.

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