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Toronto murders a chilling reminder of rife online misogyny

May 03 2018 By Mary Barry, Our Watch CEO

Last week Canada reeled from a shocking attack that killed 10 people and wounded 14, the victims predominantly women.

Online misogony Image

Alek Minassian, the 25-year-old who deliberately ploughed a van into pedestrians, used chillingly military terms to declare his motives on Facebook, declaring:

“The Incel Rebellion has already begun!” and praising “Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger”.

'Incel' stands for 'involuntarily celibate', and is described by the New York Times as an online rallying term used by "misogynists who are deeply suspicious and disparaging of women, whom they blame for denying them their right to sexual intercourse." Elliot Rodger is an individual connected to ‘incel’ groups, who committed mass murder in 2014.

It is tempting to see these incidents and groups as terrifying anomalies. But ‘incel’ communities can also be viewed as the ‘extremist wing’ of a far more widespread online movement based on a hatred of, or at least a deep disrespect for women. 

These are the darkest and most disturbing corners of the internet, where violence towards women is explicitly encouraged and celebrated, but there are mainstream channels where abusing women is routinely tolerated, and they’re close to home. 

Just days before the Toronto attack, ABC journalist Leigh Sales made a hugely important contribution to the movement to reduce violence against women by calling out the vile sexual abuse that she and many other high-profile women endure online, almost daily. 

Sales retweeted some of the more disgusting examples of online vitriol she has received.

For many of us, it is literally unbelievable that someone can begin a tweet with a comment about disliking the interview style of a journalist, and finish by accusing her of virtually performing sex acts on her interviewees. Yet tweets such as this, and many others threatening sexual violence or calling women aggressively sexist names, are thrown around online with sickening frequency. 

Such online abuse is harmful to the individual women it targets, but it also is both symptomatic of – and reinforces – a culture that condones, trivialises and perpetuates disrespect and violence against women more broadly. 

At Our Watch, we know – based on a huge body of highly respected research – that these are proven drivers of violence against women. We know too that non-physical forms of abuse and violence are often misunderstood and dismissed, but nevertheless can be extremely harmful.

More must be done to respond to this abuse. The perpetrators of online abuse are attempting to scare and silence women, to force them out of the public sphere and away from positions of power and influence. So telling women to stay off social media if they ‘can’t take it’ is an unacceptable response that only contributes further to this silencing.

We applaud Sales and the others who are calling out this vile, dangerous abuse, and it is encouraging to see individual media organisations and professional bodies such as the Media, Arts and Entertainment Alliance taking various steps to support women journalists experiencing it. All employers should support staff with clear, strong policies on online abuse. 

People who perpetrate such abuse ought to be named and shamed, and their behaviour reported to the social media corporations involved. Twitter, Facebook and other sites have a clear corporate responsibility to act on this misuse of their platforms. 

But while the anonymity of social media may be facilitating this abuse, it is important to point out that it does not explain what motivates men (and it is almost always men) to hate, abuse and attack women – online or in person – in the first place. To understand that, we need to look to the broader social and cultural environment in which violence against women arises. At Our Watch we know that to prevent gendered violence, we must challenge the ways our society normalises or trivialises abuse and disrespect of women.

That means striving for gender equality online and everywhere else – including our workplaces, schools, sporting clubs and social spaces. 

We must wake up to the connections between acts of violence like the one in Toronto and the misogynistic hatred that underpins the rampant gendered abuse of women online – before that hatred spawns any more horror.