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Black quotes of violent misogynistic abuse against a pink background with a woman's face silhouetted
Image: Archi Banal

SocietyJuly 25, 2023

Speaking out about the silencing of women

Black quotes of violent misogynistic abuse against a pink background with a woman's face silhouetted
Image: Archi Banal

Relentless stalking, hacking and online abuse is having a chilling effect on women in public life. I know, because it’s happening to me.

All images are supplied by, and are targeting, Kate Hannah.

When Jacinda Ardern announced her resignation from politics in February 2023, I was not surprised.

When the left-wing Dutch politician Sigrid Kaag announced her resignation from politics in July 2023, I was not surprised. Nor was I surprised when disinformation researcher Nina Jankowicz resigned in May 2022.

I am glad for them, for their families and for their futures. I am ultimately relieved, in a bittersweet way, because I know too well how technology-facilitated gender-based violence is being used to suppress women’s participation in public life.

Women have told me they have refused speaking requests and TV requests because harassment always spikes after you’ve been on the news. Academic stalwarts, community leaders and inspiring women I know have turned down work opportunities to collaborate on projects they’re passionate about, because they fear their involvement might cause others to experience harassment and ultimately harm the work.

There is a critical need to understand the growing use of technology to stalk, threaten, hack and ultimately silence high-profile women. Getting to grips with the impacts of this violence on women’s wellbeing, workplaces, families and ultimately communities requires research that is firmly embedded in feminist approaches. This work must also be grounded in local, regional, and community contexts and contend with the chronic under-reporting of gender-based violence – which is even more the case when the violence is committed using technology.

Launched earlier this month, Technology-Facilitated Gender-Based Violence: Preliminary Landscape Analysis is the first substantial piece of work from the Global Partnership for Action on Gender-Based Online Harassment and Abuse, a government-to-government body founded by the UN Commission on the Status of Women in March 2022. Here’s an excerpt from the foreword:

“The harassment and abuse that women, girls, and LGBTQI+ persons experience online frequently silences them, causing them to self-censor and withdraw from online civic and political spaces, disengage from school or work, and suffer setbacks to their careers, as well as causing harms to their mental and physical health. This violence doesn’t stay online. For example, 20% of women journalists participating in a UNESCO global survey said that offline attacks were directly linked to online violence targeting them.”

I was honoured to facilitate a panel discussion to mark the global launch of this work. The event featured panellists like Anita Gurumurthy of IT for Change, who discussed their study of Twitter abuse and misogynistic trolling directed at Indian women in public-political life. The study has a really accessible breakdown, and this key finding will be familiar to any public facing woman in Aotearoa:

“While we did certainly come across many abusive messages that were threats of violence, it was trolling in the nature of tongue-in-cheek jokes and remarks that were far more common. We found this ‘fun’ culture of vitriol and abuse to be rampant on the platform, through the sharing of misogynistic memes and word-play. We also found the prevalence of a kind of herd aggression where trolls banded together to reply to certain posts, exploiting the platform’s affordances of anonymity and virality to hijack the public narrative.”

Since I established the Disinformation Project in February 2020, initially to study mis-, dis-, and malinformation about Covid-19, the amount, spread, and impact of gendered violence online has consistently grown. The usual targets – women politicians and journalists – has expanded to disproportionately include women academics and, increasingly, public servants.

During the pandemic it quickly became apparent that there was a significant gender-based difference in online rhetoric, online and offline harassment, and personalised targeting of women in leadership. In fact, technology-facilitated gender-based violence swiftly emerged as a key feature of the tactics and tools in the contested information environment known as ‘the infodemic’.

This included the online and offline targeting of leading academic and science communicator Siouxsie Wiles, the repeated use of c*nt to describe women including the then prime minister, and the widespread adoption of archaic language and contemporary neologisms – witch, whore, Jezebel, succubus, priestess, prostitute, ‘presstitute’ – to describe and abuse women in all kinds of leadership roles.

Women, girls, and gender-diverse people in Aotearoa New Zealand experience and witness the harassment and abuse leaders from their communities are subjected to every day. This is also having huge impacts for young people who observing the creeping normalisation of ‘the chilling’ for women in public life.

To put it plainly, the social and political landscape of Aotearoa New Zealand has become increasingly and dangerously toxic for women and girls. It is significantly more toxic for those with intersectional identities, and gender-based violence online also targets gender minorities and members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

As someone who is asked for media commentary on a range of topics including disinformation, violent extremism, the role of social media and social cohesion, I experience this first-hand. Since May 2021, when I reported my first death threat, I have collected more than 100 death threats – some of which met the threshold in my head for reporting to police. The below text is the kind of threat I would not bother reporting:

Nuremberg 2.0, blithely described in a recent Stuff article, is so frequently evoked across social media, that I no longer really register that this is a death threat. I did notice that after the Stuff article was published, there was an uptick in people posting the link to my entry on a Nuremberg 2.0 Telegram channel on Twitter – a nice example of the long-tail, cross-platform effects of violence. With the launch yesterday of an RNZ documentary series on misinformation, I know there will be more abuse coming my way. I am steeled for it.

I’ve reported rape threats too. In one case, in November 2022, I reported to police a rape threat made by a known individual. It had been posted to Telegram with an image of me taken from my own social media. I reported this via Police 105, and used the same case number as all my previously reported death and sexual violence threats. I described the individual, how he was a stranger who is known to police, and that this took place online. The frontline cops who came to take my statement asked me if he was my ex-partner.

When I explained, again, that this person had threatened me due to my job, they replied that “he lives in another city, so it’s not an immediate threat”.

Women around the world describe the same tactics, and the same impacts – they withdraw, they make themselves smaller to avoid harm, they become accustomed to it, they no longer bother to report, they feel alone.

I have called security, police, hotel front-desk staff for friends and colleagues stuck in situations where they are being confronted and brigaded. I have been confronted and brigaded at speaking events, on the street, on the phone. I have had to contemplate what it would look like for me or my family to be physically attacked because of my work.

We must be cautious to not feel the need to over-prove before we act: women’s, girls’ and gender-diverse people’s lived experiences should be enough. The regulatory and competency gaps which mean that technology-facilitated gender-based violence are under-reported, under-acted-upon, and ignored can be challenged using existing legislation, regulation, and platform guidelines. We can push decision-makers to focus on the lived experiences of those who report gender-based harm.

Aotearoa has an opportunity to show leadership in understanding and combatting technology-facilitated gender-based violence in all its forms, from intimate partner violence to the use of gender-based harassment to target women in public life. For instance, the current open consultation on Safer Online Services and Media Platforms is an opportunity to comment on systemic issues which result in underreporting.

Another glaring room for improvement is the Aotearoa New Zealand Code of Practice for Online Safety and Harms, co-managed by NZ Tech and Netsafe, which doesn’t yet have a transparent complaints process.

You can email the Domain Name Commissioner to ask about You can demand that conversations about freedom of expression also take into account the effect technology-facilitated gender-based violence is having on the freedom of expression, movement, and social participation of women, girls and LGBTQIA+ people.

By asking these questions and demanding better of platforms, legislators and support systems, we can resist the damage this gendered violence is doing to our social fabric and our democracy.

Keep going!