“I feel like stabbing you right in your abdomen… you will be groaning in pain. I will then proceed to rape and molest you.”
“I smile at the thought of you being stoned to death.”
“If I bump into you on the street, it will be your last day alive.”
Powerfully read from glowing mobile phone screens by the women they were sent to, these are some of the messages that open #FatUglySlut: Online Abuse Against Women, a new film by Belgian journalists Florence Hainaut and Myriam Leroy.
The documentary focuses on the testimony of women from all walks of life who have been victims of harassment on the internet. It also explodes many of the myths around online abuse.
Most importantly, the film attacks the idea that the abuse of women online is just a series of isolated incidents. A pattern appears – of something much bigger, much more systemic.
Among those interviewed for the film is Natascha Kampusch, the Austrian woman who was abducted at the age of 10 and held in a secret cellar by kidnapper Wolfgang Přiklopil for more than eight years.
“At the start,” she says in the film, “everyone was really sympathetic. And then, all of a sudden, all this hate broke out against me.”
Shockingly, within weeks, people online had moved from horror at Kampusch’s ordeal to posting conspiracy theories and making up fake headlines. She received messages accusing her of making the experience up for money, and threats that someone should abduct, kill or rape her.
“But every women gets that,” she adds.
Hainaut and Leroy told The Big Issue how they uncovered the misogyny that fuels online harassment. And why they believe social media platforms are complicit in allowing abuse against women to continue. Scroll down to watch the full film.
The Big Issue: Why did you want to make a documentary about the online harassment of women?
Florence Hainaut and Myriam Leroy: We graduated from journalism school the same year that Facebook came into our lives. At the time, we never imagined that social networks would become an important part of our profession. We might not have chosen this path if we had known it.
As soon as our work became visible, we were approached by erotomaniacs (all media women are familiar with these embarrassing situations) and targeted by haters.
Our male colleagues didn’t get a tenth of what we did, but it never occurred to them (or to us, for that matter) to see anything sexist in the violence. Things are done so that we can’t politicise them and become aware of them.
Abuse is seen as an accident, not as a systemic phenomenon. However, we now know that 73 per cent of women journalists have been harassed, and among women in general, the prevalence of misogynistic violence is 85 per cent.
Have you personally received abuse online for voicing your opinions?
Of course. Especially when we express an opinion on gender inequalities. When we speak out about harassment, for example, we are harassed in return. A recent UNESCO report shows that the most violent topics for women journalists are gender-related.
Were any of the women’s stories a complete shock?
To hear Natascha Kampusch despair about the world she had fallen into after her release was a shock to us. She had been in a cellar for eight years at the mercy of a madman. And the hatred she has been subjected to since her release is mind-boggling. She recently wrote a book about it, for the same reasons that we made our film: because society is blind to this problem of online hatred of women.
What did you learn about the backgrounds and profile of the perpetrators of online abuse?
We knew, having seen him, that the average stalker is the average person. The German prosecutor’s office even claims that he is over 50 years old. Of course, there are exceptions to this typical profile, especially when the target has made himself known to a younger audience via certain social networks.
Are social media platforms complicit in allowing online abuse to continue?
This is our opinion, yes. Their business model benefits from online hate, which is highly engaging for the internet user. Commercially, the platforms have no interest at the moment in combating the violence that takes place there.
Social media can give everyone a voice, but are women being silenced due to online abuse?
The pioneers of the web thought that it was in the DNA of the internet to foster the healthiest of democracies, by giving access to speech to all those who were previously deprived of it. Today, however, we realise that the only people who speak are those who hit out, and that women, for example, are massively leaving Twitter, the political social network par excellence.
They are not just deserting the internet: how can they be encouraged to pursue political or media careers when they know that they will have to read horrors about themselves every day, be hacked, humiliated, stalked?
Should there be legal penalties for writing abusive messages and should the laws be changed to allow this?
Of course. But today the penalties, when they exist (it is very rare for a trial to succeed because in most countries of the world, the justice system still finds misogyny acceptable), are derisory. Is a suspended sentence or a few hundred euros in fines the price of a devastated life?
Has the pandemic had an effect on the amount of abuse and “hate speech” that women are experiencing?
There has been an epidemic of complaints (see UNESCO and The Economist Intelligence Unit). Idleness, boredom and the possibility of spending one’s days and nights behind a screen have increased malicious behaviour tenfold. While women, like everyone else, have never needed the internet more.
Urgent action is needed to prevent even more people being pushed into homelessness. A secure home is the first step in addressing the cruel cycle of poverty to ensure people can fulfil their potential. Join us to keep people in their homes.