Two-thirds of formal complaints to internet watchdog come from women. And high-profile women say the abuse they receive on social media is taking its toll, Isaac Davison reports.

Green MP Golriz Ghahraman says female staff who monitor her emails and social media have been moved into different roles because online sexist abuse has become so relentless and toxic.

Ghahraman, the party's human rights and justice spokeswoman, said social media attacks on women and migrants in New Zealand had worsened since the Christchurch mosque shootings in March. Racism and misogyny often came hand-in-hand, she said, and had been amplified by the international attention New Zealand received after the terror attack.

As a result, male staff members had taken over roles which had been occupied by women in her parliamentary office.

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"The men were in shock - because it was something they had never had to consume," she said. "It is gendered and it is race-based abuse, and it is constant."

Regulation of social media has been in the spotlight this week as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern sought an international agreement on tackling online extremism.

Several recent studies show that women are disproportionately affected by social media abuse and harassment in this country.

An Amnesty International paper found a third of New Zealand women said they had been abused or harassed online, and a fifth of them had been abused on social media. That was more than any of the eight first-world countries surveyed except one - the United States.

The online abuse had a tangible impact. Most of the women who had been abused said they had trouble sleeping, suffered from anxiety or feared for their safety.

This real-life harm was underlined by an online controversy involving Australian Aussie Rules player Tayla Harris last month . Harris said she was "sexually abused by social media" after a picture of her playing the sport attracted sexist and derogatory comments on Twitter.

Carlton Blues player Tayla Harris described the attacks she received online as sexual abuse. Photo / Getty Images
Carlton Blues player Tayla Harris described the attacks she received online as sexual abuse. Photo / Getty Images

New Zealanders can make complaints about online abuse to internet watchdog Netsafe under the Harmful Digital Communications Act. The organisation's latest quarterly report showed that 62.8 per cent of its complaints came from women and 32 per cent were from men.

Director of education and engagement Sean Lyons said that could reflect the fact that women were more likely to seek help. But research generally found that women were targeted more than men online.

"It's certainly something that we observe - women public figures report that they receive a lot of harmful commentary, and we've certainly seen reports that women journalists feel they are targets.

"It is often unrelated to what they are writing about … and becomes gendered abuse."

A separate study of image-based sexual abuse online - including revenge porn - found that men and women were affected differently. For women, the abuse was more personal. They were more likely to report that abuse was a form of revenge or intimidation, and that the content was shared by an ex-partner. It was often an extension of family violence.

Men were more likely to report that the abuse was for a joke or for extortion purposes. It was also more likely that they were being abused by a stranger or a friend who was not an ex-partner.

"Obviously the harm is the same," said Lyons. "But they are seeing it as a joke that got out of control rather than deliberate harm."

Paula Bennett is often a target for online trolls. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Paula Bennett is often a target for online trolls. Photo / Mark Mitchell

National Party deputy leader Paula Bennett, who is often a target for online trolls, said she no longer read comments on her social media pages. That was a difficult decision, she said, because part of her role was to engage with the public.

"The comments are definitely, noticeably more personal," she said. "It doesn't seem that male colleagues' comments are as personal."

She regularly asked Facebook and Twitter to remove anything which incited violence or was defamatory, including a recent comment on Twitter in which someone said she should be shot.

Ghahraman said rape threats were a common occurrence online. But a lot of the harassment of her was more subtle and insidious.

One of her main frustrations was constantly being told she was not qualified to comment on an issue - something she said was rarely done to her male colleagues. That was difficult because it did not appear offensive to the public eye, and because there was no recourse for it.

Ghahraman wants the Government's review of hate speech laws to consider extending protections from individuals to groups, including women. She is also interested in the German model for online regulation, which treats online providers as publishers and requires them to be more accountable for material posted on their sites.

TWITTER WARS

The Weekend Herald asked male and female politicians to post a similar message on social media and compared the response.

Within minutes, the personal abuse began.

As part of a social experiment, National Party deputy leader Paula Bennett and police spokesman Chris Bishop this week posted similar messages on Twitter and the Weekend Herald compared the results.

The two MPs chose the subject matter and the wording. They decided to post about a recent event involving gangs at Te Mata Peak in Hawke's Bay.

"Local councils and police should not facilitate gangs having patching ceremonies, public places should be public. Lock the gangs up." Bennett tweeted. Bishop posted a slightly less provocative message.

While many of the comments under Bennett's post addressed the issue, several more were personal.

A user named Rosie raised Bennett's daughter's past relationship with a gang member. Another woman, named Philippa, appeared to allude to Bennett's youth in Taupō and suggested she had been promiscuous.

Many comments were vitriolic. Bennett was called a fascist, a moron and an embarrassing idiot.

"F*** off with that s*** & don't f***ing come back to me with that trumping bulls***," said a user who went by the name of Paul.

The comments under Bishop's Twitter post were more reserved, and generally stuck to the issue raised.

"Agree wholeheartedly," one commenter said. "It's giving gangs a tacit seal of approval when their core business is outside both the law and any sense of common decency."

Green Party MPs Golriz Ghahraman and Gareth Hughes were also asked to post similar messages,

The results were unremarkable, though a quick trawl through Ghahraman's comments show a steady stream of toxic commentary.

"You deserve everything you get," said one commenter after Ghahraman spoke about how white supremacists had threatened to lynch her online.

Hughes said he often experienced name-calling, but got none of the vitriol and anger which his female colleagues received.

"Women often have to defend their view in public at the most basic level," he said.