With Stephanie Jonsson at Ontario Digital Literacy and Access Network (ODLAN). Organizations working on gender justice, feminist, and 2SLGBTQIA+ issues are subject to online attacks intended to delegitimize and devalue their efforts. Employees who deal with these attacks have little protection. Their mental health is impacted, and their time and resources are wasted. They’re likely to have to leave digital spaces rather than stay and contend with the onslaught.

Over coming months, we’re delving into gendered digital hate and harassment 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 to help you in your digital life, and we talk about what it means to “take back the tech” for all of us.

We’re joined by Stephanie Jonsson, co-founder of ODLAN. She’s a Ph.D. Candidate in Gender, Feminist, and Women’s Studies at York University. ODLAN raises awareness and trains organizations on the significance of digital inclusion. It acknowledges that colonization and white supremacy created the social conditions that sustain inequality and marginalize queerness – even in digital spaces. The digital divide is part of this ongoing colonization, and digital access and safety for all cannot be achieved until Indigenous communities have full access to digital spaces. ODLAN stands firm in its conviction that digital safety and accessibility remain fundamental to the broader project of decolonization. ODLAN’s mission is to remove digital literacy and access barriers and it provides organizations with tools, knowledge, and training to develop digital inclusion strategies. Stephanie is dedicated to building projects that build the strength and resilience of Rainbow communities.


00:00:02 Stephanie

The impacts of queerphobic online hate are significant. Beyond the emotional, physical, and mental tolls on an individual, these attacks affect entire groups and communities.

00:00:12 Andrea

Queerphobic and transphobic hate and harassment is on the rise online, not only against individuals, but also against organizations serving 2SLGBTQIA+ communities. What do we do 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.

00:01:13 Andrea

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.

What about organizations and groups? What about their leaders, workers and volunteers?

The Canadian Women’s Foundation notes that gender justice organizations are subject to online attack intended to delegitimize and devalue our efforts. Studies note that when organizational employees have to deal with these attacks, they have little protection. Their mental health is impacted. Precious time and resources are wasted. Employers are more likely to have to leave the digital spaces in question rather than stay and contend with the onslaught.

Research also shows that those who speak about gender justice issues online face increased exposure to abuse. This may apply to community and organizational leaders as much as it applies to politicians, journalists and influencers.

Over the coming months, we’re delving into gendered digital hate and harassment 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 to help you in your digital life, and we talk about what it means to take back the tech for all of us.

Today we’re joined by Stephanie Jonsson, co-founder of the Ontario Digital Literacy and Access Network, or ODLAN for short. She’s a PhD candidate in gender, feminist and women’s studies at York University. ODLAN raises awareness and trains organizations on the significance of digital inclusion. Its mission is to remove digital literacy and access barriers, and it provides organizations with tools, knowledge, and training to develop digital inclusion strategies. Stephanie is dedicated to building projects that build the strength and resilience of rainbow communities.

00:03:16 Stephanie

I am in Tkaronto, also known as Toronto, which is cared for by the Anishinaabeg Nation, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, and the Huron-Wendat.

I grew up with a learning disability. In high school, I struggled a lot with my studies. In Grade 9, I knew I wanted to be an educator, but I really didn’t know what that would look like. I thought that because of my learning disability, going to school to be a teacher just wasn’t going to be a possibility. But I’ve always been a go-getter and I’ve really been interested in developing projects that will directly help communities.

I have a diploma, actually, in social work. I never pursued my master’s in that. I ended up finding a lot of joy in sexuality studies and gender, feminist and women’s studies. But as somebody who suffers from ADHD, I also experience anxiety paralysis, chronic depression, and imposter syndrome, so I find it hard to focus, and I’ve had to dedicate a lot of time into, like, managing my mental health.

But by doing that, I’ve also thrived in pursuing my passions and, like, tested out what I like, what I don’t like, what works for me. During the pandemic, it gave me a really big opportunity to do things differently. And one of the things I did first was I stopped working on my PhD for a few months. I stopped really doing any work when we couldn’t really work, and I painted daily. So, I ended up developing this multimedia art project which is called Pandemic Creations and I make acrylic art which gets put on home decor and clothing.

It led me to living by the motto “unapologetically creating”, because at the same time I allowed my brain to, or like, my mind and my body, to heal from a lot of stress of grind culture and start pursuing what was really going to, like, fill my cup.

So, a lot of the art proceeds have been used to help support ODLAN–ODLAN is completely self-funded. My artwork is an outlet that’s allowed me to take a lot of risks and embrace the unknown. ODLAN was this avenue for me to turn my PhD research into an action-based project. How are we going to get queer seniors connected during the pandemic and keep them connected and raise awareness around how, not just queer organizations, but also digital literacy and access organizations, can come together on meeting that need. We’re basically like your guides to achieving digital inclusion.

For this discussion, I will often use rainbow organizations or rainbow communities instead of the 2SLGBTQI+ acronym when possible. This research that we’re going to be talking about is in partnership with Wisdom2Action. It sheds light on how rainbow organizations experience queerphobic online hate.

We also received support from our community partner, Rainbow Faith and Freedom. Wisdom2Action held six focus groups, 5 in English and one in French, and they interviewed a total of 17 rainbow organizational leaders. This project was funded by the Digital Citizen Contribution Program as part of the Canadian Heritage. We are using this research to develop digital safety planning training for organizations who serve rainbow communities.

00:06:26 Andrea

You just released a research report entitled The Internet Isn’t All Rainbows: Exposing and Mitigating Online Queerphobic Hate Against 2SLGBTQ+ Organizations. Tell us about it.

00:06:38 Stephanie

Prior to starting this research, I recognized that, like, cyber bullying and cyber violence was viewed by researchers as an individual problem and not necessarily a collective issue. There was a ton of research and reports done on the cyber bullying lens and a lot of it focused on bullying and schools, different youth groups, online. There was very minimal research studies on rainbow staff experiences with online hate and harassment in Canada.

This gap in the literature sparked our interest to develop this study. This online hate takes so many different forms, it often manifests on social media platforms, online forums. This can also include comment sections on news outlets. People end up on our organizational websites and then use our ‘contact us’ pages to, you know, send direct emails and send direct threats. And it even can happen during live online events, where we get Zoom bombed.

The impacts of queerphobic online hate are significant. Beyond the emotional, physical and mental tolls on an individual, these attacks affect entire groups and communities. The sense of belonging and safety that rainbow spaces provide can be eroded. And this has a chilling impact on self-expression, participation in the overall well-being within rainbow communities. So that’s why it’s really important that we recognize the rise of online hate as a collective issue that is threatening our human rights and our democracy.

00:08:08 Andrea

The rise of online hate and harassment against 2SLGBTQIA+ people has been stunning. Give us a sense of its scope, form, impacts both on individuals and groups.

00:08:19 Stephanie

Many people are very bold behind a computer screen, when we’re in our bedrooms or offices, wherever we decide to use the internet solo, our filters tend to go down. A lot of people don’t fully acknowledge the impact of their words or feel accountable to their actions online. Social media platforms allow individuals to connect globally. It gives them the ability to express their opinions with minimal censorship. And these online social spaces also increase the likelihood that individuals will encounter others who don’t share similar values or political views as them.

I am sure, like, we’ve all reported hateful remarks we see online, only to find that a social media platform doesn’t view it as a violation of the community guidelines. And this becomes quite frustrating because we continue to report and get these very automated responses. Social media platforms also fail our communities by not adequately responding to reports of hate, harassment or overt threat.

In 2017, a systemic review of 27 studies from Canada, the United States, Europe and Australia found that as many as three in four LGBTQ youth may be subject to cyber bullying. More recent studies have similarly found that gay, lesbian and bisexual people are more likely to experience cyber bullying than their straight peers. A 2018 survey of safety in public and private spaces found that transgender Canadians were much more likely than cisgender Canadians to have experienced unwanted behavior online. And many studies have captured rainbow peoples’ experiences with being targeted online by far right extremists. But now we’re seeing this influx of mob attacks on organizations who serve our communities, which is quite scary.

The people engaging in hateful acts online rationalize their opinions with over-exaggerated arguments about protecting children and cisgender women, using pseudoscientific beliefs and conservative religious ideas. These are just some perspectives that people hide behind to justify online hate speech. And we also see this increase in misinformation about gender and sexual expression that is spread on social media platforms or far right news outlets that has put rainbow communities at risk of being attacked both online and offline.

00:10:32 Andrea

Why are rainbow organizations targeted? What’s the goal here?

00:10:36 Stephanie

I see these people who are attacking us as incredibly organized. I think they know if they destabilize our organizations’ infrastructure, they can start to diminish the community’s power. I don’t think this is something new. We’re just seeing new iterations of it. But extremists, they are looking at how they can separate us and isolate us further in our communities so that they can achieve whatever their ultimate goals are.

It’s about our capacity to serve our communities and this takes our attention away from what our primary goals are, which is providing programming and services that will improve the lives of queer people.

00:11:18 Andrea

Tell us more about the distinction between online attacks against individuals versus organizations. How is it the same or different?

00:11:25 Stephanie

Online hate typically refers to hateful posts or comments about individuals or groups. This can escalate to online hate when the comments or posts are directed to a specific individual within a group or organization. And this type of harassment is meant to cause direct harm to the recipient.

Doxxing is an act of publicly sharing someone’s information online, and by releasing this personal information, attackers can get their followers to harass individuals through various outlets, like hateful emails, physical mails, phone calls, even showing up to drag shows in groups to protest. Studies on individual experiences with online hate and harassment tend to view cyber bullying as an individual problem, as I said earlier, and the suggestions within that are usually around how individuals can protect themselves.

Organizations are usually called on to raise awareness about the impacts of cyber bullying and offer those direct support services, but they’re not really equipped to deal with the attacks that are being directed to them as a whole. So with the rise of anti 2SLBGTQIA+ hate, we’re seeing more organizations, community activists and allies coming together to protect their communities from these harms. There’s also incidences where community leaders are stepping back from being in the public eye because of that fear of having that hate directed specifically towards them.

During Pride 2022, libraries across Canada were subject to homophobic comments and threats of violence, both online and over the phone, for hosting drag story hour events. And library staff associated with these events were also threatened and even doxxed online by right wing, anti 2SLGBTQI+ groups. These attacks directly disrupt our ability to provide programming to our communities and they also make us feel unsafe, unwelcomed and threatened in the communities we live in. And it’s a direct violation of the Charter Of Rights and Freedoms, as well.

00:13:22 Andrea

I’ve been asking this of all researchers. Did anything surprise you about what you found? What gives you pause?

00:13:29 Stephanie

Our findings didn’t surprise me, but rather, reinforced my assumptions about professional experiences with online hate and harassment. Again, I really didn’t have the information when we started this and I had a lot of questions, but as somebody who is in the academic world, I turned to research for answers.

I’ve been on the receiving end of online hate and harassment, so as a staff member at Rainbow Faith and Freedom, I used to manage their social media pages and moderate the comment sections during the pandemic. I saw this huge increase in hateful responses towards RFF. I would wake up some days to a number of hateful posts, and I would spend my mornings reviewing and deleting them. Sometimes these would escalate to e-mail threats or even phone calls.

As a team, we tried to think of ways to mitigate the hate we were receiving on our social media pages. We were looking into the tools and resources to address this, but we found that they were limited, and we didn’t know who to speak to. We could speak to each other, but we really didn’t know where to go around this. And digital safety kits were uncommon and the ones that did exist focused on more general tactics. They didn’t focus on queer organizations necessarily, and the specific challenges we were experiencing.

And then I also manage my friend’s website. My friend is named leZlie lee kam and they’ve given me permission to share this. leZlie identifies as a Jurassic rainbow senior dyke with 47 years of community activism experience. In June, she threw the first pitch at the Blue Jays game during the Anthony Bass controversy, during Pride. And this resulted in an increase of direct threats on her website. The traffic alone went up like 700% overnight and then hateful messages were coming through. The increase in website traffic and hateful messages forced us to create a safety plan for leZlie to protect her physical well-being. This included a plan for when she was going to the event, and when she was leaving the event. And, also, you know how to make sure that she felt safe at home.

Threats didn’t stop her from throwing the first pitch. They did put her on high alert and because of these things happening, and this is not the first time it’s happened, she’s become a lot more cautious about who she talks to at events. It becomes really difficult for community leaders to put themselves out there with this fear in the back of our minds.

These stories are small examples of the hate that we face daily. But what was interesting about the project is participants came up with a range of suggestions for preventing and responding. We learned that a one size fits all approach does not work for rainbow organizations. So having discussions on what each of our digital safety strategies can look like will allow us to build our community strength and resilience in combating this problem.

00:16:14 Andrea

What tips and tools do you recommend for our listeners dealing with this organizational targeting today?

00:16:19 Stephanie

Take care of yourself. Your mental health and well-being must be your first priority. If you’re a social media coordinator or a personal relations manager, don’t feel obligated to manage the online hate and harassment on your own. Talk to your team about how it is impacting you and if you need to step back from that role, that’s OK to do so. Continue to report hateful content online and accounts that are harassing our organizations, you can also block them, and you can choose to discontinue using problematic platforms that don’t suit your needs.

Be proactive, consult with other organizations like ODLAN. We can help you build that digital safety plan. At ODLAN, we chose to leave Twitter because of the changes made to the platform under new management. We also asked other organizations who continue to use Twitter to not share our stuff on that platform. We continue to use Facebook and Instagram and LinkedIn, but we’re aware that these platforms are not perfectly safe, so the best we can do is have a plan. If we receive an increase in hate, what do we do to take care of ourselves?

00:17:27 Andrea

What can we do to make digital spaces safer from the bottom up and the top down?

00:17:31 Stephanie

So most importantly, we need to call on all levels of government to provide funding to increase the capacity of rainbow organizations to safeguard ourselves from online hate and misinformation. Our insurance rates are going up, our cost for having physical events is going up, we have to increase security measures for organizations, and we need financial support in doing that.

We also call on tech and social media companies to improve their policies and practices for addressing and preventing the rise of anti 2SLGBTQI+ and anti-feminist beliefs.

All levels of government are also responsible for protecting our human rights and our democracy, so they should be holding these social media platforms accountable for not taking more action on the hate that we’re receiving.

Organizations, they must take action in protecting themselves from online hate. All organizations who serve rainbow communities and other equity deserving groups who are targets of online hate must have a safety plan for when these incidents occur. Upper management must provide resources and support services for all staff and volunteers, including accessible mental health supports. When online hate incidents occur, remind those who monitor these situations about the resources and support services available to them so they can manage their mental health and well-being.

Staff must be involved in developing and implementing a reporting system for recording profiles that regularly attack your social media pages. Logging these incidents can assist you in filing a police report, but for many rainbow organizations, they may not feel comfortable filing a police report so you can still use these logs to flag and block individuals who are continuing to pop up and attack you on multiple platforms. As rainbow communities, it will be beneficial to establish collaborative mechanisms across rainbow organizations to share lessons learned and ways to mitigate queerphobic online hate.

So, I encourage people to visit the ODLAN website to access the full research report and the supplementary educational resources. We also have a really great webinar series that happened over the last few months on mitigating queerphobic online hate so you can hear what other organizations have been doing to tackle this issue.

00:19:52 Andrea

Alright, now what? In addition to ODLAN’s website, Stephanie suggests checking out the Coalition of Muslim Women of Kitchener Waterloo’s website, reportinghate.ca, as well as resources on the Canadian Anti-Hate Network. Find them at antihate.ca.

Get the facts on gendered digital hate, harassment, and abuse by visiting our fact page on canadianwomen.org.

While you’re there, read about our new Feminist Creator Prize to uplift feminist digital creators advocating for gender justice, safety, and freedom from harm.

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This series of podcast episodes has been made possible in part by the Government of Canada.

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