Online abuse of women in the media
Yumi Stynes didn’t want to be the centre of a media storm. When she saw that she and her fellow panellists on the TV chat show Studio 10 were scheduled to talk about the Invasion Day protests on January 26, she knew it could veer into “dangerous territory”. But when Kerri-Anne Kennerley accused protesters of doing nothing to help Indigenous women and children being raped in rural communities, Stynes was the only one to call the veteran television host out on her racist comments.
“I pictured the moment playing out in my head and imagined my friends who I love, who are people of colour, seeing me not say anything. And I thought, ‘If I don’t say something, I will fall below their estimation,’ ” Stynes tells me.
It has been two weeks since the incident. And while Stynes says the feedback she’s received on her stance has been overwhelmingly positive, her social media has been flooded with abusive comments and messages, some of which she took screenshots of and posted publicly to her Instagram account. “You are a brainless worthless piece of shit!” one user wrote, telling her to “apologise for firstly being born”. “You’re such a cunt,” another messaged.
Stynes isn’t alone. A report by Women in Media Australia last year found more than one in five Australian female journalists have been cyberbullied, and they are three times more likely to be attacked than their male peers.
Freelance journalist Nina Funnell has been receiving hate mail and threats of sexual violence since her first opinion piece was published in 2007, talking about the time a man attempted to rape and kill her a few hundred metres from her home. Comments flooded social media calling her conceited for thinking she was worthy of being raped. Last year, Leigh Sales took to Twitter to call out a user named Ed Hunter who accused Sales of “virtually go[ing] down on her knees to give any Lib an on-camera blow-job”. A few months later, in August, far-right extremist Blair Cottrell – following an appearance on Sky News – told his 25,000 Twitter followers he might as well have raped presenter Laura Jayes on air because “not only would she have been happier with that but the reaction would’ve been the same”.
Male journalists can also be the victims of hateful online comments, of course. But research from the United States’ Pew Research Centre and Britain’s Demos has found men are more often attacked on economic or religious grounds. Online attacks against women are, as a rule, more sexual, more violent and more sustained.
Readers found ways to send female reporters abuse even before the internet was widely used. It’s something Dr Emma A. Jane – a media lecturer at the University of New South Wales – chronicles in her book Misogyny Online: A Short (and Brutish) History. As a columnist for The Australian writing under the name Emma Tom, she’d always received “quite a bit of hate mail via the postal service”. But in the late ’90s, when email became mainstream, she started putting her online address at the end of her column. The one or two emails she’d receive in response to her weekly column jumped to about 100. Fifty or so were supportive. About 25 were politely critical. The remaining 25 threatened to beat her, rape her or kill her – a paradox of “I’m going to fuck you senseless” and “I despise you”.
Sometimes such random attacks come from individuals who are empowered to broadcast their thoughts without consequence, protected by a fake name and stock photo. But Jane has noticed that many of the worst trolls hunt in packs. She tells me she even discovered a forum where trolls were recruiting people to proofread her doctoral thesis for plagiarism in an attempt to have her fired.
Ginger Gorman, a freelance journalist and author of the upcoming book Troll Hunting, has spent the past few years interviewing internet trolls to shed light on their practices. One of the men she spoke to – whom she calls Mark – was approached by other trolls who admired the way he went onto the Facebook pages of deceased people and wrote comments to hurt their families. He and the other gang members started working together to pick their next victims and research the kinds of comments that would take the worst toll.
Mark represents the kind of troll women in the media are forced to fend off: “Very angry marginalised white men who feel disenfranchised and blame feminists and feminism for their woes,” says Gorman. They are not the stereotype of an unemployed middle-aged man typing alone in his mother’s basement. “They are smart, they are very well educated, they are very organised, they are very angry. And they are operating together,” she tells me.
So, I ask Gorman, what came first? Did the internet make people feel it’s okay to act this way? Or did it just create a platform for attitudes and behaviours that already existed? While Gorman agrees people often behave differently online from how they would in face-to-face interactions, she wants to make one thing clear.
“Underneath all of this is misogyny,” she says.
But why are female journalists so regularly attacked?
“Often, women in the media are ‘hate-matches’ for that particular marginalised white man. We are the things that they hate,” Gorman says. “So, for example, in my case, I’m white, I’m female, I’m a feminist, I’m a journalist (they don’t like the media). I’m left-wing, my background is Jewish, I’m in a mixed-race marriage and I’m standing up and using my voice. I’m speaking out and taking up space. These are all things that alt-right males hate. I’m threatening their perceived position in the hierarchy, so they attack. This is about power.”
The hate is rooted not only in years of normalised misogyny but also in racism. “When someone is speaking authoritatively and you don’t like what they are saying, you look for the weak spots and go for them,” says Yumi Stynes. “It’s never about your work, it’s always about your ethnicity and your look. With women, you can stick a knife in based on what she looks like, but a man doesn’t have that kind of soft underbelly.”
When I ask Muslim anti-racism campaigner and writer Mariam Veiszadeh what impact online abuse and trolling has had on her, she says: “Normal everyday things become an anxiety-inducing exercise.”
Once a strange package turned up on Veiszadeh’s doorstep with her name and Chinese characters on the front. Inside was a Ziploc bag with 10 or so white tablets in it. “I thought, ‘Wait, this must be someone trying to send me drugs or something that looks like drugs’,” she said. Her husband had a similar response. “He freaked out, saying, ‘Don’t touch it, don’t touch it … we’ve got to take it to the police.’ ” The package turned out to be cleaning tablets Veiszadeh had ordered online.
While she, her husband and the police had “a big laugh about it”, Veiszadeh knows not every alarm bell turns out to be false. “Look,” she says, “I’m not going to sit there and monitor what [online trolls are] writing, but some of these threats are credible.”
Nina Funnell knows that feeling of paranoia. Where once she feared only an individual – her attacker – after the online abuse began she feared an unknown number of people. “There were suddenly many individuals [threatening me] and I didn’t know who they were – they could be standing in front of me in the supermarket checkout at Coles buying milk and I wouldn’t know,” she says. “And so, suddenly, I didn’t just feel unsafe in relation to this one person who assaulted me. I suddenly felt unsafe in relation to public space.”
Every woman I speak with for this article is afraid. They hesitate before answering. They know that talking publicly about the threats they receive will cause an increase in abuse. It will remind the trolls of their existence. Confirm that they do sometimes read the emails and comments. Reveal they are affected.
One potential interview subject cancels our chat, saying she’s just received fresh death threats. She can’t risk inciting the troll. It just isn’t a good time. She has to pick up her kids from school. Did she mention she was sorry?
Journalists, and journalism students, have admitted to Emma Jane that they’ve given up on a career in the media because of the backlash they expect to receive. Mariam Veiszadeh messages me after our interview to add that she took a massive step back from protesting against and writing about Islamophobia because of the online abuse she copped. Nina Funnell tells me that once when a car she didn’t recognise pulled into her driveway, she thought it was a sexual offender she’d reported on making good on his promise of revenge. She was on the floor, shaking and sobbing when the car lights began to recede. Someone had mistakenly driven up to her house.
Female journalists go through life knowing one in five women will be sexually assaulted. Cyber threats create a real-world fear. “Even if a rape threat turns out to be an empty threat,” Funnell says, “the fact is that a woman has probably spent her life afraid she will be raped. That does damage. It has power.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 16, 2019 as "Troll call". Subscribe here.