'It was deeply frightening': Federal strategy will aim to fight cyber violence against women

As more women speak out about online harassment, the federal government is promising to take action with a strategy against gender-based violence.

Women are more likely to experience cyber stalking and sexual harassment online, research suggests

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel has been the victim of life-threatening cyber harassment. She says the experience was 'deeply frightening.' (Patrik Doyle/Canadian Press)

Septembre Anderson is no stranger to the toxicity that can emerge on Twitter. 

"I was sent a video of a dismembered body and was told it should be me," says the Toronto-based journalist who has experienced cyber harassment regularly. 

Septembre Anderson says gender-based online harassment happens because 'misogyny is real.' (Septembre Anderson )

"It happens because misogyny is real and the internet [and] social media is not fake." 

Anderson wants to see more being done to protect women online.

And she might see that happen. As women are becoming increasingly vocal about the abuse they face on the internet, the federal government is taking notice. 

Patricia Hajdu​, the federal status of women minister, is working on a strategy that will aim to combat gender-based violence with a focus on cyber harassment. 

For now, Anderson resorts to blocking accounts that send hateful messages. But that doesn't mean the harassment stops.

"I am not blocking that IP address. So, it is very easy for someone to create another Twitter account and continue from there."

'Ripple effect' 

Research indicates that some women and girls tend to be the primary targets of some forms of cyber violence. According to a 2014 poll from the Pew Research Centre, "online violence is especially more pronounced at the intersection of gender and youth."

The poll surveyed 2,849 Americans online and had a margin of error of +/- 2.4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. Results suggest that young women 18 to 24 are generally more vulnerable to stalking and sexual harassment online in comparison to men.

Twenty-six per cent of the young women surveyed had been stalked online, and at least 25 per cent of the women said they experienced online sexual harassment.

On the other hand, seven per cent of young men had been stalked, and 13 per cent experienced online sexual harassment.

Jessica Gaulin of Women, Action, and the Media (WAM!), a non-profit organization for gender equality in the media, is not surprised that women are the subjects of online violence because they are also targets offline as well.

"Obviously, our online presence is a reflection of how things are in real life," she says. 

According to data collected in 2004 and 2007 from the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, one in four women will experience some kind of unwanted physical or sexual violence before they are 16. 

The report also indicates that women are five times more likely to be victims of sexual assault than men.

"I think the ripple effects of online harassment have very real consequences on that person's real life," Gaulin said.

The Pew survey notes that while men experience harassment online, their encounters differ compared to women. Men are more likely to be exposed to name-calling, embarrassment and physical threats. Women are at higher risk of receiving rape and death threats. 

'It was deeply frightening' 

Michelle Rempel, Conservative MP from Calgary Nose Hill, has first-hand experience with online harassment turning into an offline reality. 

Rempel received Twitter messages that she could not simply brush off as lewd comments.The tweets were life-threatening, and she went to the police. 

At the time Rempel received the tweets, she was travelling for work and grew concerned that the perpetrator was following her and would physically harm her.

"It was deeply frightening," Rempel said. "And it makes me angry to admit that, but, of course, it ... has the effect of silencing you." 

Status of Women Minister Patricia Hajdu says the upcoming federal strategy to combat gender violence will focus on cyber harassment (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

In October 2015, Damany Skeen of Toronto was convicted of criminal harassment and uttering threats against the MP on Twitter. He was sentenced to six months of house arrest and was ordered to stay away from Rempel.

The MP believes that many men in her position do not experience the same kind of treatment online.

"My male colleagues are not being threatened with rape, and they are not being called gendered slurs as a way to disempower them or harass them," Rempel said.

"Gender is part of it. You can't dismiss that." 

Many female politicians and public figures, including Rempel, are subject to hateful, sexist comments online on a regular basis — often centred around their physical appearance. But Rempel says there is a clear distinction between those kind of "garden variety" insults and violent threats.

Federal strategy will focus on cyber violence

Hajdu, the federal status of women minister, says she is determined to tackle the issue of cyber violence in an upcoming federal strategy to combat gender-based violence. 

"In the cybersphere, online, we as women in particular know that [harassment] occurs in horrific ways. So, in my perspective, we want to be working on not just the long-standing aspects of [gender-based violence] but we also want to address the emerging realms," she told CBC News. 

Stephanie Guthrie was at the centre of a Twitter harassment case involving Gregory Alan Elliott. In January 2016, Elliott was acquitted. (CBC)

Hajdu is meeting with an advisory council this summer to begin a consultation process for the strategy, which will be ready by either this fall or early in 2017. 

Hajdu says that working with experts and advocates "on the front lines" who have a strong understanding about gender-based cyber violence will strengthen the federal government's approach in crafting an effective strategy. 

"It will be stronger than one complaint or one lawsuit. It will be the federal government of Canada saying we need to take these actions," she says.

Laws may not do enough to protect

Some critics say the law does not go far enough to help women who have experienced cyber harassment. 

In January 2016, Gregory Alan Elliott, a Toronto man accused of criminally harassing feminist activists Stephanie Guthrie and Heather Riley on Twitter, was acquitted

There was no doubt that Guthrie and Reilly were harassed by Elliott over several months in 2012, either due to the volume or content of his tweets, but that alone does not meet the legal threshold for a conviction, Ontario Court Judge Brent Knazan said. 

"In the online context, I think the violence that is experienced is trivialized," says Kendra Milne, director of law reform at the Vancouver-based West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF). 

"Some cases tend to turn into a bit of a subjective analysis about whether or not the women involved should have been reasonably fearful of the conduct that was happening."

According to Hajdu, the federal strategy will also also look to change the legal aspects of cyber violence. She thinks that a federal plan is a good start to combat cyber harassment, but laws also need to be reviewed.

"A component of the strategy is actually working with the minister of justice to review Criminal Code legislation. The strategy is just not programs and policies."

For Rempel, it is important the perpetrators of cyber violence are brought to justice. 

"We have to make sure that when people are convicted of these crimes, they are handed penalties that reflect the seriousness of the crimes themselves," she says.

''When you're getting threatened with rape and death, that is actually quite serious. That is not acceptable. That is not something you should just ignore.''


  • A photo cutline in an earlier version of the story erroneously suggested that a tweet commenting on Conservative MP Michelle Rempel's physical appearance was one of the tweets that was the subject of Rempel's criminal harassment complaint to police. In fact, it was not.
    Jul 13, 2016 4:46 PM ET


Simran Singh is multimedia journalist based in Vancouver. She is a graduate student at the UBC School of Journalism with an interest in culture, society and politics and is completing a summer internship with CBC News.

With files from CBC News