We’re activists – we discuss social justice, and we see comments on almost, I mean I don’t think I’ve ever, we’ve ever, had a video where there hasn’t been hate speech.
Digital hate, harassment and violence hurt so many women, girls and Two Spirit, trans and non-binary people. Content creators who address gender justice like Emma and Floli have a lot to teach us about it.
I’m Andrea Gunraj from the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
Welcome to Alright, Now What? a podcast from the Canadian Women’s Foundation. We put an intersectional feminist lens on stories that make you wonder, “why is this still happening?” We explore systemic routes and strategies for change that will move us closer to the goal of gender justice.
The work of the Canadian Women’s Foundation and our partners takes place on traditional First Nations, Métis and Inuit territories. We are grateful for the opportunity to meet and work on this land. However, we recognize that land acknowledgements are not enough. We need to pursue truth, reconciliation, decolonization, and allyship in an ongoing effort to make right with all our relations.
Whether you’re on social media, streaming platforms, dating, messaging and meeting apps, or on game sites, if you’re a woman, girl, or Two Spirit, trans, or non-binary person, you’re at greater risk of hate, harassment, and violence.
1 in 5 women experience online harassment in Canada. Younger women are amongst those who face higher risks. 44% of women and gender-diverse people between 16 and 30 are personally targeted by online hate speech. Those most at risk include people with disabilities, 2SLGBTQIA+ people, Indigenous women, and Black women.
Gendered digital hate, harassment, and abuse happens every day. It’s pervasive, urgent, and growing.
Over coming months, we’re delving into this with leading experts and content creators, releasing in-depth episodes every single week. We talk about the problem and what we can do to change it. We offer practical tips that will help you in your digital life, and we talk about what it means to “take back the tech” for all of us.
Our guests Florence-Olivia and Marie-Emmanuelle are internationally renowned researchers and speakers in violence prevention and intervention. They are public figures and experts in human rights and have acted as consultants for businesses, nonprofits, public sector organizations, and governments. They created their own online platform, The Sis, which engages thousands of people from around the world on current gender justice issues. In 2022, they were recognized as two of the 15 most influential people in Québec. Amongst their work on social media, they’ve helped spread the Canadian Women’s Foundation’s Signal of Help to their audiences as a tool to help end gender-based violence.
A note about content: this episode addresses gender-based violence.
I’m Marie-Emmanuelle, and you can call me Emma for today, that’s perfect. So, I’m a PhD candidate in law at Queen’s University, and I’m specializing in intimate partner violence, primarily on the public space where laws are made, with policies and all of that to create a safer place for women in their home and outside of it.
And I’m Florence-Olivia. I’m the older sister, and you can call me Floli for this podcast. I’m a PhD candidate at Durham University in the UK. And I’m specializing in sexual violence. My research project is about redefining rape in the law. We also have a platform, an educational feminist platform called The Sis, that we started three years ago.
And so, we now have a community of over 400,000 followers from all around the world and we’re really proud of this and we’re really happy to see that so many people want to educate themselves on feminist issues and women’s rights. And through this platform we have been able to share and democratize our research, which is sometimes hard to reach people who are not necessarily in this sphere.
We’ve had the chance to collaborate with phenomenal organizations such as the Canadian Women’s Foundation, the United Nations for Women. And so, we’re just very grateful to not only have this amazing community of feminists and activists, but also to really be able to make a difference in the lives of women and girls everywhere.
Our platform is called The Sis, so we’re sisters, obviously. That’s of course, we’re passionate about our work, we’re passionate about helping women from all around the world, but also, we have been dancing for almost 18 years, semi-professionally, both of us. Always been almost working together and having fun together, so that’s really something that’s a big part of our lives.
We both started when we were three years old. Both of our parents were dancing. Our dad used to do break dance. Our mom was a ballet dancer, and so it was always part of, you know, just growing up we saw our parents dance. But we never thought, you know, like when we started our platform The Sis, we actually – it was at the beginning of the COVID pandemic and you know, TikTok was really big on the dancing part. And so, for us, who were stuck at home you know we tried to, you know, put a message on these dances that are trending on TikTok. This is really how The Sis started, with just … we used to do the dances that were popular, that were on the algorithm, and we added feminist ideas, feminist messages, and it’s really how we started, you know, getting people invested in the work. So, I think dance is – really was at least – a big part of our lives growing up, but we never thought that one day, you know, as later academics we would combine dance and knowledge.
What’s been your experience with gendered digital hate and harassment as your platform grew?
When we got into uh, you know, social media and all of that, it was a first for us. So, we didn’t really know what to expect. We were just doing this out of really interest and passion. So, we didn’t think really about maybe negative, not repercussions, but negative comments or anything. We were just – for us, it was just natural to talk about these issues.
We started to receive hateful comments and when your platform grows so quickly, there’s many kinds of people commenting. And yes, there are feminists, but yes, there’s also people who have never heard of feminism or who are against it. For us, it was really challenging in the beginning, and I mean, of course it still is, but really it was a shock for us when we started. You know, nobody prepares you for this kind of hatred. And I couldn’t understand where that was coming from. Like we’re just really discussing lived experiences of women and what they’re going through, and these real issues that affect people. And to receive hate because of that – I just couldn’t understand it, so it was very difficult to grasp.
Also, a big part of why we were shocked is that we publish and, you know, educate based on data, based on science, based on, you know, reliable sources. And to see that despite the fact that we had evidence about, you know, violence against women, sexual violence, the prevalence of it, it was still met with a lot of resistance, with a lot of backlash that, you know – false or they were lies while we’re even providing the sources for people to just have access in an easy, free, and accessible manner. That was, you know, a big part of why we were shocked.
But also, not so shocking to see that women and girls have their voice always censored in a way, whether that is in the public space. So now that this growing agent in which we are in about you know the digital age, it’s not surprising to see that women and girls are having their voice taken down. And you know that they are trying to be silenced unfortunately. We are threatened. You know whether that is for our own safety, whether that is for our page or whether that is just for our followers who are trying, you know, to educate their other friends and who are also receiving threats. To see that is just a reminder of the violence that is pervasive whether online or offline.
We try to just block as much as we can. These are just the steps that we tried to take and to preserve also our mental health is to just not always look at all of our DM’s and try to just separate our work from ourselves, which is difficult to do. But we don’t feel bad when we block people who are not good for our mental health or not good for our safe space on our platform because we want to keep this space also safe for our followers.
And you’ve had the irony of platforms flagging your content on gender justice sometimes, right?
TikTok and Instagram. Oftentimes we have our videos taken down because we address these issues and our videos are censored or they’re taken down, but then we see these horrible videos of these people and it takes so much for them to be taken down or removed or anything and that is very disturbing to us.
Yeah, that, you know, as a platform – educative platform based on data, research – that we are you know sometimes considered as hate speech while we are promoting gender equality. It’s still a reminder of, you know, the work that remains to be done. And these different social media platforms should actually, you know, contact and discuss with, for example us, you know, survivors of digital hate, so that you know we can share our lived experiences. Platforms have a huge responsibility to promote a safe space for all these creators.
Like other creators we’re talking to, your content is about feminist education – it’s a good example of the positive elements of social media that can get lost.
I mean the main point is that we can reach the whole world, which we didn’t have access to. This kind of 4th wave of feminism, which is that we can finally, all women and all gender diverse people, can share their own experiences and be like, “Oh my God, you lived this as well? I did too. How do you deal with that? What can we do as a worldwide community to create change and to have safe spaces and all of that?” I think for me that’s the whole point of social media is that we can reach everybody.
Yeah. And at the same time that we actually also give a voice to everyone. For example, that is something we do with The Sis, we often ask you know our followers, “Did you have any experience of sexual coercion?” Then we get answers from people from everywhere around the world who live under different legislations. But that actually can connect with other people from other countries and see that you know their lived experiences should be recognized in the law or that these different forms of gender inequalities are still pervasive in 2023. Oh my God, say it, in 2023.
What do you suggest someone facing gender digital hate and harassment do to try to build their safety in online spaces?
You know, for people who don’t want to have like a big platform or anything. Just for fun, I think social media is and should be a space where they feel free to be themselves, they have fun, they connect with other people. I think that’s the base of social media. So, if this implies having, you know, perpetrators and abusers on there, then of course, the first step is to, as we do, report and block.
But then it also comes to the fact that sometimes this online misogyny can create a threat for physical reality. So of course, then there are steps to be taken to either, if it’s in high school or in college, to report to your principal and people who are responsible for that, but we also know that it’s not, it’s not always taken seriously because it’s not – in brackets “it’s not physical, it’s not real”. Just discussing it with people and seeing that you’re not alone and continuing to even maybe go to the police if it comes to that. Reaching out to other people is always a good idea. But if you also witness it, then you absolutely have to act on it and not in a way that makes you threaten your physical safety or … Exactly. Yeah. You got to be careful, but I think it’s really important that people take a stand on this and say, you know what, that’s not OK or report these people, not take part of it, obviously.
It’s so important for, you know, bystanders to be active, not just passive bystanders. Whether that is in the physical world, where it’s harassment on people in the street, where it’s important to intervene. The same is true for, you know, the online world.
Speaking of bystander action, what do you think about the role of men and boys in making digital spaces safer?
Yeah, that’s so important. Actually, I think to include men in the discussion because a lot of time we think for example, you know with sexual violence, domestic violence, we think this is a woman’s problem. And you know, when we look at the perpetrators, it’s actually men who are perpetrating this form of abuse. In the same way we are seeing that also with digital hate the main perpetrators are men and I think this is not a woman’s problem. I think this is a problem of, you know, men having a certain position in society and deciding … Because we know that there are a lot of good men, minority of bad men who are perpetrating that, but the good men, I think, should be able, you know, to call out when they see something or when they read something online. They have such an important voice because as women cannot, you know, just take the burden on us and it also unfortunately does not have the same impact that men can have on their male colleagues or friends, you know, so.
That is. Yeah, that is very true.
The standards and the ideals of what it means to be a man. We identify this with strength and leadership, and I think it’s about redefining what is strength actually. Is it just about what you’re lifting at the gym? No actually, you know, I think a big part of strength is having the emotional courage to denounce injustices when we see … We’re talking about all these different forms of men who are leaders in their fields. Well, I think it’s about also redefining what it means to be a leader. A leader is just not to be passive when they have injustices in front of them. I think it’s about redefining what it means to be a man. Men who are staying, unfortunately in this, you know, confine of patriarchy, of this standard idealized way of being a man, not only suffer from it, but also could actually benefit from growing as a man. And you know, just redefining what it means to be a man.
It doesn’t affect me personally, so why should I do something about it? It just goes to show your values and like we live in a society. We actually have to care about others. I don’t want to come back to like you never know when you’re going to need people because that should be just a selfless act. But still, if you were in that situation and I’m going to quote a philosopher, but it comes to John Rawls, and he had this idea of the veil of ignorance, which is that you have to be able to put yourself in a position where what if you were living this situation? What if you didn’t have the privileges that you have, the situation that you have? How would you want someone else to act towards you?
You know, some of the most misogynistic comments that we receive are actually from fathers who, when we click on their profile have 5 beautiful daughters, have a wife that they’ve been married for, you know, 20 years. Is this man when he is with, you know, some of his boys, are they still, you know, upholding these different misogynist joke that he’s making? Because what if that was your daughter that was treated like that? If that was your wife that was treated like that or your sister? Unfortunately, I don’t think we would need people to relate directly to take to take part in the change, but I think it’s a good way, concretely, to identify if that was to happen to someone that you love close to you, would you tolerate that? Would you accept that? And would you want other men to also intervene and to denounce that it’s not OK. You know, to see that some of these men have daughters, have wives, it’s just heartbreaking to see, you know, and we can’t imagine probably what goes beyond closed doors.
I’m just thinking about the kinds of harmful comments that some of your videos must get. I imagine it very much falls into the realm of bold and vocal toxic masculinity.
It’s such a wide range. We’re activists – we discuss social justice and women’s rights. So, it’s mainly about this, but we see comments on almost, I mean I don’t think I’ve ever, we’ve ever, had a video where there hasn’t been hate speech, hate speech and misogyny online. I mean, it’s really, honestly, I was going to say rare, but I don’t think ever it’s happened. For example, like we have these videos – especially I’ve got to say when there’s issues about relationships. And we talk sometimes about like equitable relationships and how to, you know, be a good, for example, boyfriend or how to not perpetrate misogyny in your in your relationship. For example, there was this video recently that we posted about the so-called husband stitch that happens after women go through labor. And then the husband just jokes about having his wife, you know, stitched tighter, which is just horrifying. And there has been real experiences of these, but also that people joke about this we were shocked and so we posted this video and so many men and fathers and husbands, like Flo was saying, come and are like, “you can’t take a joke or divorce happens because of women like you who can’t take a joke”, and continuing these…
… dangerous, I think, dangerous ideologies.
I think, as Emma was saying, we are targeted primarily because we discuss gender inequalities and that’s just a reminder of why we still, you know, need feminism still today. And I think it’s a, you know, a big part of why we are so invested in The Sis. It’s demonstrating that we have all these different inequalities that are still happening. To be honest, like I’m trying to reflect if there is one particular post. It’s always there. It’s pervasive and unfortunately it’s like, you know, I guess the demographic is, it’s mostly men. Like we do have some women who unfortunately take [Emma: mostly cis men, yeah] – yeah, cis men and cis white women I guess, mostly who would, you know, take part in these ideologies. But when we look at cis men, it’s across all the different ages, like whether that is 8 years old, 70 years old man. It’s from everywhere …
… from any generation. And it’s really shocking to see that there’s a lot of young boys as well. Like, really young, who comment horrible things like that I’m not even going to repeat because it’s honestly very disturbing and they’re so young. And it just it comes back to the fact that we have to start teaching so early on in childhood, you know, to break these stereotypes, to break these roles that they have in their minds that women do this, men do this. All of that I think it’s so important.
So healthy, romantic, relationship content seems to trigger special backlash on your channels. So related to that: we often speak to online behavior that’s harmful in platforms like Instagram and Facebook but I’m curious about the gendered abuse and harassment in dating apps.
The dating apps, they’re all about you know, yes, of course, helping you find your match, but also making money, right? So, their priority is not to make it a safe space necessarily. Yes, there is, for example, Bumble, which is I think that the women have has to be the one writing first. But still, I mean it’s one step, but it’s not necessarily creating really these safe spaces because once you’re in contact with the other person, then it’s just in. You know, someone can just be harassing and then they’re reported, their account is taken down. Boom the next day, they create a new account like nothing happened. There’s no like follow up, like concretely to really erase these abusers and perpetrators from these sites. It’s so easy to just see people as products, because we’re just swiping through people. So, there is also this sense of, I’m not really talking to a real human being, so hate and violence can be perpetrated so much more easily. They’re just a picture. They’re just there. I can write anything and then unmatch them.
And the way we can make a link between dating apps and, you know, digital hate is that you know what happens when women and girls say no. Their boundaries, oftentimes are just not respected. What happens when they say no, whether that is when they are engaging with their partners and say no to have sex or whether that is, they do not want to go on a date with this person. And unfortunately, even though they block, or they say no, well, they will still find them on Facebook or they will still, you know, text message them. Just a reminder that unfortunately there is still so much work to be done to protect and to enhance women’s safety.
What do you feel needs to change in a bigger, systemic way in digital spaces?
These platforms: TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, all of that, Twitter, now called “X” I believe, they have such a big responsibility. And you know we said earlier that for us social media is … we try to see it in a positive light at least, but I know for these companies it is mostly if not all about capitalism, of course. But they still haven’t, as we said, as leaders they must take action. They must enhance these spaces because I mean if it continues just like just as it is right now, there isn’t going to be any improvement, and I think they’re the ones creating these spaces, so they’re the ones that have to also regulate these spaces. They don’t necessarily, I’m not going to say care, but they don’t necessarily see it as such an important issue that they don’t necessarily put a lot of money towards, you know, funding for example, specific teams who only do you know they look at all the harassment every day or you know, to create new algorithms or all of that. It’s just not a top priority for them. And I think it should be.
Online violence against women and girls infringes on human rights and liberty. And I think they have a responsibility as corporations, as big companies, to actually, you know, create stronger regulation around that and to, as Emma was saying, you know, offer trainings to their different teams and to actually amplify the voices of, you know, creators who are more marginalized, and this is, as Emma was saying, not a priority at the moment for them.
Yeah. And I think individually, then again, we have to continue to care for one another. And I think that’s such a cliche thing to say, but at the same time we have to, as a society, keep building up each other. And seeing that yes, of course, we want free speech on social media, and we want people to be able to express their opinions and all of that, but also do it in a respectful way, is such a basic thing to think about, but so many people don’t do it because it’s so easy. You’re just behind your computer or you’re just behind your cell phone. You don’t even have to have a picture on your profile, and you can just create these harmful conversations.
And then also there’s like the governmental side and the laws, which I know in Canada, we have some laws for cyber violence. In theory, of course, it’s OK, it’s great, you know, and encompasses the sharing of intimate pictures and it’s, you know all of that, but people still feel like it’s so vague.
So, you know the big platforms have to do something. Laws need to be a little more accessible. People in their daily lives have to continue working to be active bystanders and all of that. When we address these issues online and when we talk about them and when we discuss them in public spaces, this will create more conversations and will continue to create change. And so, I think that’s really why we have our platform also.
We’re so grateful to just be here today and to be able to talk about that with you because yes, from our own lived experience, this is terrible what we are receiving, you know. The harm from online gender-based violence is severe, but I think it also… it’s just a reminder of you know the importance of having this discussion because it’s not just about what is happening online. This goes back to gender-based violence. Online is just one part of this spectrum of violence that is still happening. Through online violence there is this issue about self-censoring women and that create a constant restriction on women’s ability to just be free and live, you know, free from violence, and I think it’s just so important that we have this discussion today because it reminds us that women and girls are not free from violence still.
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