The Toronto van attack, the Atlanta Spa shooting, all of those people who perpetrated those crimes—men—were radicalized online. That’s where they find the fuel and the fire to spread.
How can we equip ourselves and take action on gendered digital hate and abuse?
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.
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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.
We’re still not doing enough to prevent and end it on a large scale. Perhaps that can give us the impression that the public doesn’t care or we’re all too complacent to do anything about it.
The numbers tell us otherwise. In 2023, the Canadian Women’s Foundation found that 88% of people in Canada believe we need to make changes so online spaces are safer for everyone. Fifty-eight per cent of women in particular strongly agree with this idea. Likewise, 88% of people in Canada believe social media companies have a responsibility to keep users safe from hate and abuse on their platforms.
Despite any outsized voices to the contrary, any loud naysaying and denialism, the vast majority of people in Canada want safer digital spaces and we want accountability for that safety. I hope you get a sense of hope in these findings.
We’re almost at the end of our series delving into gendered digital hate and harassment with leading experts and content creators. We’ve been talking about the problem and what we can do to change it. We’ve offered practical tips to help you in your digital life, and we’ve talked about what it means to “take back the tech” for all of us.
Our guest Leigh Naturkach is Executive Director at the Mosaic Institute. Prior to this, she worked at the Women’s College Hospital Foundation, AIDS Committee of Toronto, and right here at the Canadian Women’s Foundation as well as in media at Corus Entertainment. Her volunteer experience spans two decades in both leadership and front-line roles, focused on gender equity, reproductive justice, support for young people, and end of life rights and care.
A note about content. This episode addresses gender-based violence.
I started my career in the nonprofit sector, really growing up at Canadian Women’s Foundation, which was such a huge, huge experience for me and one that I’m just so grateful for – really informed my pathway forward and how I approached the work. The leadership, the community, the solidarity, and the kindness was really something that just grounded me in that there are many ways to do the work and that was something that was always important for me to take forward.
My passion areas really include, you know, social justice and showing up for that in a variety of ways. Animals – I’m obsessed with dogs. They give me joy, they make me feel present, they forgive me my faults, so I certainly can forgive them theirs, even though they don’t have any cause they’re perfect in my mind.
And I also focused a lot in recent years around end-of-life care and death literacy spaces. So, I’m actually a qualified death doula, as well, which has also given me a really wonderful sense of spirituality and grounding that also helps guide me in this work actually in a really great way.
So, tell us about your project on addressing online hate.
The Addressing Online Hate Project was brought to us last year by a funder to help meet a need in the community. You know, we’re seeing rising levels of hate offline and online. Obviously, they coexist, and they influence each other. So, the need to address it in very specific ways online was a large, identified need over all of actually Mosaic’s History.
Mosaic Institute really focuses on education, training, programs, policy, and research to address issues of dismantling prejudice and getting at the roots.
We found that our approaches to dismantling prejudice, you know, this project really aligns with that and getting at that education piece, which is core to addressing so many of these issues. Addressing Online Hate Project is a three-part micro credential and certificate program, and it really has the three components that are rooted in identifying online hate and understanding what it is, really. It’s tough for people to recognize what it is, how to respond to it personally, you know, within your ecosystem, and how to combat it online, as well.
I think one of the largest things we hear at Mosaic is the sense of overwhelm that comes from issues of dismantling prejudice and addressing issues. What we really want to do is make people feel like they can have influence within themselves, but also within their spheres of influence around them, and at all levels.
So, not only for themselves, their community, but at systemic levels to help address all of these large issues that many of us face and too many of us, and particularly for structurally marginalized communities, and how to show up for ourselves and for others in a way that that makes sense, is tangible, and action oriented.
Tell me about what you’ve seen in the research around the proliferation of digital hate and harassment.
As part of the larger whole, the more intersecting factors around identity obviously exacerbate the risk and the harm that people experience. There’s not enough research about this, particularly in Canada, but YWCA actually commissioned a report last year that found that 83% of women and gender-diverse people between 16 and 30 have witnessed online hate speech in the last 24 months. And a report by Plan International in 2020, 14,000 girls ages 15 to 25, nearly 60% of them have personally experienced online harassment.
And so, when you think about what that translates into for not only just ethno-communities and age groups and demographics, but also, we’re seeing a larger pattern, particularly in the last couple of years for women in politics, in journalism, people who are working in frontline, you know, marketing and online digital spaces.
So, it’s really translating in a number of ways that go beyond identity, but around practice and career as well. One of the largest issues is that the hate and misogyny that is happening between groups, and they have those homes online, the scale and the speed that online hate allows, just allows it to spread in such a way that is alarming and very tough to navigate.
The Toronto van attack, the Atlanta Spa shooting, all of those people who perpetrated those crimes—men—were radicalized online. That’s where they find the fuel and the fire to spread.
Again, to this issue, it can feel so incredibly overwhelming and it is. Often it is fewer perpetrators than we think but the scale with what we witness online is enormous. But certainly, you know, there’s many statistics around the larger issue. The Canadian context, what’s interesting about it, as well, is there’s varying definitions of hate speech, hate around the world. There’s no international definition.
So, that’s what makes it really tricky to address, is that, you know, we’re all working from a different playing field around what are the laws and legislation behind us to help know our rights.
But also, you know, the different entities that are part and parcel of solving this issue. It’s multi-pronged approaches that are needed. You know, not only to support youth and people within their communities with support systems, mental health resources, but also parents, educators, the people around them in their ecosystem to help educate them.
Workplaces, you know, technology companies, they have a role to play — a very, very important role to play, as well as government and legislators. So, you know, when you look at all of those different approaches to addressing this issue, you can’t untie them from each other — they really need to work together.
With Mosaic Institute, our goal of education, what we had to really realize, is we can’t solve everything by ourselves. And so, you know, education, starting at the root and addressing those preconceived ideas, those biases that we all have, the plain language, addressing disinformation, using fact-based knowledge and education, and starting at those roots, no matter what your age. Whether you’re youth, whether you’re early career, whether you’re later in life, there’s always opportunity to grow and evolve. And so, our belief is that by starting with education and training and knowledge that can then also spread in scale as much as hate can, that’s a direct response we’re certainly able to provide.
We’ve learned that there isn’t this big distinction between online and real life. The two completely intersect in the digital age and heighten gendered risks. Can you tell us more about that?
In coming to this role in Mosaic, what I’ve really had to understand was the spectrum from prejudice. And, you know, the resulting impacts of that that do, you know, extend all the way to murder and violence.
And, how most people think of themselves or others as prejudiced, racist, misogynist, you know, whatever those other labels are. I think what we have to remember in all of this difficult work is that the majority of people are part and parcel in the middle. And I think there are people who, you know, sort of already get it. They understand these terms, they are very knowledgeable about communities, like the incel community. They know the nuances.
It can be very specialized and exclusionary in talking about these things because it’s very intimidating. Once you start to pull at those threads, it gets to be very difficult to understand how those things proliferate, especially in Canada. There’s a denialism around that those movements actually exist here, and there’s a very important need for all of us to recognize that it does in fact manifest in many, many different ways right here in Canada.
To the other end of that, the rise in polarization and disinformation and conspiracy theories—all of these exist at, sort of, the other end of the spectrum, and the people who are motivated to join those movements and that language, are often, you know, there is a lot of research about it.
We’re working on some pieces with the Canadian Anti-Hate Network who, you know, specializes in that group, where we cannot as an institution. We can’t work for everyone and all people. But that radicalized group, it’s often men who are isolated, disenfranchised.
It’s not about not having empathy, but it’s also about understanding how do they get co-opted into these movements and groomed in the same way that young women and girls also are.
There’s actually, you know, with trad fems and trad wives and different, sort of, adjacent groups of young girls being coerced into this as well, which we can’t forget. But obviously, and certainly true, it’s largely represented by men and white supremacist movements.
So, that’s really where they’re rooted in. And to understand how that plays out online in these forums, Reddit or other threads and groups where people are finding a sense of belonging in a time of polarization and disconnection, and all of these other factors that influence who we are as individuals, it happens over time. It’s not a lone wolf scenario. It’s definitely part and parcel of an intentional movement that is targeting these individuals.
What has surprised you in your work on the issues?
Every day things surprise me at Mosaic and the things that I learn. And, you know, nothing is a monolith and there are individual experiences that also can be attributed to the larger hole that, you know, certainly make the qualitative case for what people are experiencing among different communities.
But I would say, you know, one of the surprising things was, again, the lack of legislation and consistency across, not only, around the world, but across Canada by various provinces.
There’s different legislation, different policies, different rights that people have. To my understanding, I believe BC has some of the strongest legislation in this area, which is fantastic, but even among school boards. How schools deal with different issues within that place and lack of curricula consistency, too, and how they are, you know, not only preventing but responding to these very real issues in the classroom that they cannot avoid any longer. It’s not a separate issue from what, you know, parents and caregivers provide at home. But how are they responding?
Because it’s playing out in school settings at an alarming rate. Especially during COVID when students were online, that’s where it really galvanized, and we saw this in different ways with digitally enabled sexual exploitation. The language is evolving, which is very important to help really understand what’s happening, that violence using those right words connected to these issues that were previously conceived as, or put off as, bullying.
Even though that’s a very serious issue, it was sort of getting lumped in with some of those pieces. So, understanding the nuances of how that appears in different aspects the lack of research though it’s growing, it was surprising.
We’re going to also be launching an Understanding Hate in Ontario survey later this year (2023) as well, which will glean some really important community-driven information and understanding how that plays out online and off.
You know, for such a broad topic that has existed in so many ways that there is no universal language for how to talk about hate, and it’s interpreted in many different ways.
Well, not surprising, but just the volume and the ways that I would say, also, people don’t feel supported by many of the companies that may have mechanisms for reporting or other tools. The lack of oversight and response, or resources to be able to do so, is as alarming as the issue itself.
Do you have any advice or resource recommendations for our listeners?
You know, I was reflecting on, you know, who are we and what role do we play in all of these movements and complex social issues that we’re facing? I think a lot about it in the same way that I do about climate change—in similar aspects and not that everyone is experiencing it in the same way. But the importance of, and necessity of, being able to show up and do what we can from where we are, and that was something I very much learned at Canadian Women’s Foundation.
It can be easy to look away or to not engage and to not participate. Of course, I also recognize that it’s about self-care and self-preservation at times, as well.
So, depending on your experience and engagement, that’s a very important factor that I really want to underpin. What recommendations might be, they may not work for you at this time. I think, you know, one of the pieces that we talk about a lot is starting with that self-care piece and understanding: how are you experiencing this? Is this something you need to be witnessing? Are there simple things like closing a window, stepping away?
And I think that the challenge with that though, too, is that then you’re “being disappeared” from spaces that you have a right to be in. And so that’s a complex scenario in question, but certainly taking a break is something everyone can do.
Relying on your family and your networks and your friends and people around you who can support you, just to provide as an active listening opportunity and to download and relay what you might have experienced and how you’re feeling can offer some kind of comfort at times.
I would say understanding your rights and educating yourself and knowing what platforms you’re on and what recourse do you have. Even though they may not be perfect or very effective at times, knowing those things can be tools, you know, within your sphere.
For other people also demonstrating allyship is really important. So, how do you support someone who you witnessed experiencing it? These are the things that our modules teach — is how to do that in a way that’s thoughtful, intentional, demonstrating empathy, and not exacerbating the situation, necessarily, cause that happens very, very easily and can lead to very dangerous situations.
So, I don’t want to underpin that piece. It’s understanding safety first. What do you need to be safe first and foremost? Educating yourself, educating others, so that they can understand what they’re seeing and witnessing and resources that they can access to help address those issues that are playing out in many of the platforms all of us use, from the workplace, to schools, to political forums, to any comment thread that you’ve ever read on the Internet.
And I think, again, like understanding what it looks like. Like you said, a lot of us are still even understanding how that plays out in the nuances. And you know, I’ve done that well, I’ve shared material or a meme and I did not understand the roots of what it was.
And how do I not perpetrate it myself in those ways, which is a very important role we can all play. One thing I think is really interesting, and we’re seeing more of is consumer activism, as well. It’s being able to choose which platforms are you going to give your time, money, and resources to? And how do you, you know, hold them to account in that way? Because dollars speak loud and clear. And I think we are in some ways seeing that. So as much as the spread and scale of hate is on there, the backlash against harmful things is also occurring and we need to remember that.
One of the things that surprised me in a really good way around this topic was how much work is being done and how many resources there are out there and the coalitions that are working to galvanize action toward this at all levels. So, not only providing on the ground resources and training programs and mental health first aid kind of pieces, but also how are they coming together and organizations sharing.
We were working with dozens of partners on this project and what was so great was the willingness and ability of these groups to step forward with their content. We worked together in paid partnership and many other formats to not duplicate efforts but to amplify and, you know, further spread their resources and assets but also to fill in gaps and help make sure that it was a really robust program that people are going to find, really, of utility in their own lives and how they’re walking around in the world.
Things like MediaSmarts and Roots of Empathy and project 1907. There’s different reporting tools that you can use that aren’t necessarily, you know, part of the criminal justice system or, you know, those different pathways. Certainly, surveillance and other issues and challenges that people have with different sectors play a factor in all of this. But there’s a growth of different reporting tools where people can tell someone, validating their experience, feeling like I’m heard, it matters, and I have a right to share that experience should I want to.
Just developing our critical thinking skills and knowing if you’re going to respond and engage, if you choose to, in that way addressing it, what works and what doesn’t. Again, we can’t solve for the super extremist. That’s one particular area where we’re never going to change hearts and minds.
But some people just have misinformation. They are ignorant. They may not know they are speaking in rhetoric. Understanding fact-based information, to use humor not in a shame or blame way. You know, there’s different approaches and I’d be curious about other perspectives to this, but you know, maintaining that sense of empathy not only for yourself, not for perpetrators necessarily, but showing up in good faith and willingness to engage in healthy dialogue is something that I think is such an undervalued skill set and opportunity for people to have. And I think, you know, that starts through education and how we you curate these online environments, as well, to make space for that.
Certainly, it’s not always possible, that’s absolutely true. But I do think that, you know, I’ve had a couple of experiences online where, you know, there’s a miss, especially online in tweets or short based information. Written format is very difficult to actually say what you need to say. So, misinterpretation, not even in misinformation or hate, sometimes it can just be misinterpreted. So, to clarify and understand what people are actually trying to say at times can actually alleviate a potential blowout or a really harmful situation.
But, knowing the difference in how that plays out, that’s where these education and resources and trainings, no matter how savvy we think we are, will all give us tools to really help think critically, work through the complications, and respond in a way that not only preserves our well-being, but also can help us be good citizens digitally and for other people and demonstrate how to model that for others. I think that’s really important.
Alright, now what?
Visit mosaicinstitute.ca to pre-register for the Addressing Online Hate certificate course.
Get the facts from 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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