Young women of colour face hate-filled online environment

Advocates centre lived experiences in the push for government regulations to #BlockHate
Photo: Ivan Radic (Flickr CC)
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Noor Fadel still has the screenshot of the first hateful message she received.

In 2017, Fadel, who was then 18 years old, survived a racist and sexist assault on a busy Vancouver Skytrain for being a visibly Muslim girl. While shaken by the attack, she decided to speak out about it — first in a Facebook post that went viral, and then in dozens of media interviews. At the beginning, there was an outpouring of support.

“It started with a bunch of good messages,” she recalled. “I wanted to respond to everyone. I wanted to be that person that acknowledges every good message that I got.”

But racist and Islamophobic messages soon flooded in, with many calling the attack a hoax. There was also a deluge of misogynist slurs and victim-blaming comments, including some coming from Fadel’s own community.

“I feel like every single woman that I know in my life has experienced some sort of hate, of discrimination, of racism, of unfairness, of abuse.”

This wave of online hate continued for months before ebbing. It rose again in conjunction with her court date and any time she was invited to speak about her experience.

“It could have just been something that they took like 30 seconds to type out, but that’s something that stays in for me forever,” she said.

“I genuinely thought the worst day in my life was the attack itself. But every single day for that month, two months, three months, four months of constantly receiving so many negative messages, it just felt like the worst day over and over and over again for me.”

Despite that experience, Fadel is once again sharing her story as part of the #BlockHate campaign. Led by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation (CRRF) and YWCA Canada, the campaign aims to spotlight the experiences of young, racialized women as well as those who are queer or trans as part of the push for company policies and government regulations to curb online hate.

“I feel like every single woman that I know in my life has experienced some sort of hate, of discrimination, of racism, of unfairness, of abuse,” she said.

“It’s really an honour for me that anyone has come to me and felt comfortable enough to share it, and it’s something that I’ll never take for granted. I think that's a huge reason why I’ll never keep my head down.”

Women, people of colour disproportionately targeted

Fadel’s experience with hate — in person and online — as a racialized woman is not rare. In Edmonton, at least five Black Muslim women have been assaulted or threatened this year. Women have also borne the brunt of a growing wave of anti-Asian hate in Canada, according to grassroots platforms where people can report hateful incidents.

“There’s so much pain and grief,” Amy Go, president of the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice (CCNC-SJ), told the Canadian Press in response to the recent Atlanta mass shooting that killed predominantly Asian women.

“At the same time, as Asian Canadian women, none of us were surprised.”

The online environment is no better. A 2015 United Nations report says that 73 per cent of women have faced some form of online violence. Meanwhile, a January 2021 poll commissioned by the CRRF finds that racialized individuals are three times more likely to experience online hate than their counterparts. Those who are between 18 and 29 are also much more impacted compared to older age groups.

“We knew that women are always more targeted for online hate,” said CRRF executive director Mohammed Hashim.

“But we didn’t realize how consistently the age group between 18 and 29 year olds were experiencing and witnessing hate. It’s not just because they’re online more or that they’re more aware of what hate looks like, it’s just the fact that that’s the environment they’re witnessing online. We want to highlight that and that’s how this campaign began.”

YWCA Canada CEO Maya Roy added that different communities also experience online hate differently. Social media companies’ algorithms and human reviewers may not be effective in responding to all the various forms of hate. So beyond raising awareness, the campaign will also work with survivors of hate crimes to identify their needs and solutions, according to Roy. This would then be used to inform the algorithms of social media companies like Facebook.

“I’m a survivor of hate crime, some of my colleagues are as well,” she said. “What we were seeing was that our experiences weren’t necessarily being captured in the solutions or in the policies.”

Federal measures coming

One broad solution could come through federal legislation — a move that the majority of Canadians support, according to various recent surveys.

Federal ministers are currently developing measures to tackle online hate, which would likely create a new regulator and introduce major fines for companies that fail to remove flagged content. The regulator would also be tasked with enforcing a new legal definition of hate and increasing the transparency of platform’s algorithms, according to the National Post.

“I think it’s very important to report online hate if you see it.”

In a January open letter, which garnered over 30 signatories including YWCA Canada and the CCNC-SJ, community groups expressed support for government regulation. They also called for the creation of a civilian oversight body to audit regulations and hear appeals, which would ensure fairness in those rules — especially in responses to concerns around free speech — and keep them updated on changes in hate speech.

“Like all legislation, the devil is in the details,” Roy said.

“We’re anxiously waiting to see what the details of the legislation are. I think our job is to make sure that those lived experiences and the solutions in response to them are actually there.”

The measures are expected to be unveiled in the coming months.

In the meantime, advocates stressed the need for everyone to be active bystanders.

“A lot of people expect you to just jump in, but that’s not always the case because it can be a threatening or dangerous situation. It could have easily been like pulling the silent alarm [on transit]. It could have been taking your phone out and documenting it, or even just calling for help,” said Fadel. On social media, “I think it’s very important to report online hate if you see it.”

Roy agrees, emphasizing the importance of naming the harm as well as standing in solidarity with and amplifying the voices of women and minority groups. She also pointed to broader work that community groups are doing, such as a collaboration between YWCA Canada and the Indigenous Friends Association, an organization empowering Indigenous communities through digital technology, to build a chatbot to refer people to support.

“We want to start talking about solutions and we want to start talking about bystander intervention,” said Roy.

“We also wanted to show people that you can survive it, and it’s also okay to name just exactly how harmful and how terrifying the incident is in terms of your own healing. Everybody individually goes through their own process. But unfortunately, this is a systemic issue.”

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