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The Facts about Online Hate and Cyberviolence Against Women and Girls in Canada

Online hate and cyberviolence have emerged as extensions of violence against women. These issues are rooted in gender inequality.

While people of all genders experience cyberviolence1, women and girls are at greater risk of experiencing violence online, especially severe types of harassment and sexualized abuse. In 2009, 67% of the victims of police-reported intimidation on the Internet were women and girls. 2

International data is similar. 73% of women are abused online worldwide, according to the UN Broadband Commission’s 2015 report.3 More than half (52%) of the women polled disagree with this statement: “The Internet is a safe place to express my opinions.”4

Frequently Asked Questions about Online Hate and

  • Why is it urgent to address online hate and cyberviolence targeted at women and girls? 

    People in Canada, particularly young people, are spending increasing time on social media and the Internet.5 This means they are exposed to greater risk of harm.

        • Malicious content is easy to share widely and rapidly in digital spaces.
        • Reports of hate crimes have increased in Canada, 6 including online hate speech and extremism. 7 Social media companies8 and government policy makers9 have not caught up to this reality, and do not yet provide adequate protections against online hate and cyberviolence targeting women and girls. Exposure to hateful speech and attitudes in digital spaces may escalate the risk that people will act on these views through physical violence.
        • Young women (age 18-24) are most likely to experience the most severe forms of online harassment, including stalking, sexual harassment and physical threats.10 Women who face multiple forms of discrimination, such as racial or cultural discrimination, homophobia, and transphobia, may be at increased risk of online hate and cyberviolence.
    • What’s the difference between online hate, cyberviolence, and cyberbullying?

      While definitions vary, online hate is generally rooted in hatred of a specific group, based on gender identity, race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation or other characteristics. Canada’s Criminal Code designates four specific acts as hate crimes: advocating genocide, inciting public hatred, promotion of hatred, and acts motivated by hate that target property used by an identifiable group.11

      Cyberviolence also has varying definitions, but the United Nations uses the term to capture how the Internet can be used to “exacerbate, magnify or broadcast the abuse” against women and girls.12 The UN notes that cyberviolence is as damaging to women and girls as physical violence. Cyberviolence can include online harassment, as well as threats of physical harm such as sexual assaults, murders, and suicides.13

      Cyberbullying is often associated with children and youth being harassed online.14 When it’s used to describe violence against women and girls, it doesn’t always address the root causes of gendered violence and harassment.15

      Another term used to talk about online violence against women and girls is cyber misogyny, which was coined by West Coast LEAF.16 This term acknowledges that women and girls are more likely to face online hate speech or harassment.17 It better addresses how digital tools are used to harass women and girls because of their gender.

      • What are the root causes of online hate or cyberviolence directed at women and girls?

        These forms of hate and violence are rooted in social inequity, and based on patriarchy and heteronormativity.18

        Misogyny is “hard baked” into societal norms. It influences how people behave online and in real life. In both cases, perpetrators of hate and violence are often motivated by power and the desire to dominate.19

        Online hate is often directed at those who transgress patriarchal stereotypes and expectations. It controls peoples’ behaviour by creating discomfort, anxiety, and fear.

        The effects of online hate are multiplied for people who face other forms of discrimination on top of sexism. This includes women who identify as Indigenous, Black, and living with disabilities, among others. They are “doubly targeted.”20

        Online hate doesn’t only affect individuals. It hurts communities as a whole, too. There is a cumulative harmful effect for women and girls as a group.21

        • What are different forms of online hate and cyberviolence directed towards women and girls?

          Online hate and cyberviolence can take many different forms, including:22

          • Harassment or spamming: Using technology to continuously contact, annoy, threaten and/or scare the victim.23
          • Cyberstalking: Repeated and unwanted e-mails, texts, or social media messages. Cyberstalking can also involve posting inappropriate or personal information or pictures on a social media site.24
          • Sexual exploitation or luring: Women and girls are “coerced into removing clothing and posing sexually for a webcam or solicited for sex as a minor.”25
          • Non-consensual distribution of images: This refers to revenge porn and non-consensual sexting.26 Revenge porn occurs when individuals post intimate photographs or videos of another person online to humiliate them or negatively impact their life.27 Non-consensual sexting happens when someone texts intimate photos or messages without permission.28
          • Hacking: Gaining illegal access to an individual’s or organization’s online services for reasons such as to acquire or alter personal information, slander, or create harm.29
          • Doxing: After acquiring someone’s personal information, this refers to releasing the information online to harass them.30
          • Flaming: Messages known as “flames” are posted on online discussion forums to offend other forum member(s) and incite a “flame war.”31 These messages often contain offensive, abusive, and/or discriminatory language.32 Research shows that flaming can have negative emotional effects on message receivers.33
          • Are hate crimes and online hate really on the rise in Canada?

            Yes, in Canada there has been a substantial increase in hate crimes in recent years.34 The spike has been linked to increasing expressions of hate in digital spaces, including those directed at women and the 2SLGBTQ+ community, as well as highly targeted ethnic and religious groups.

            Online hate speech in Canada increased by 600% between November 2015 and November 2016.35

            60% of Canadians have seen “hateful or racist speech on the Internet,” according to a poll of 1,519 Canadians conducted by Léger Marketing.36

            Of reported hate crimes between 2010-2017, almost a third of the victims were females.37 When it comes to violent crimes against Muslims and Indigenous people, they are more likely to involve female victims.38

            In 2017, 53% of hate crimes against 2SLGBTQ+ community members were violent crimes. While all communities experience violent incidents, those experienced by people 2SLGBTQ+ community members tend to be the most violent offences.39

            In 2011, 1 in 6 Internet users reported seeing content that promotes hate or violence, and 7% of those people experienced it themselves.40 In this group, young girls are more likely to be harassed than young boys.

            In one recent example of hate crime, two men in Ontario were found guilty of promoting hate against women and Jewish community members through a free newspaper, which was also available online.41 The newspaper promoted the legalization of rape, as well as racism, homophobia and conspiracy theories.

            Hate toward women has also been expressed through the incel movement, a male-dominated online community that blames women for “involuntary celibacy.”42 This community has encouraged violence against women in online forums such as 4chan and Reddit.43 Criminologists and sociologists are concerned that incels44 are a growing threat in Canada.

            Ideas promoted by the incel movement have been linked to the 2018 Toronto van attack, in which a driver killed 10 people and injured 16 others,45 mostly women.46 The driver posted a Facebook message about the “Incel Rebellion” before the attack.47

            • Online hate and cyberviolence aren’t as bad as physical violence. Why can’t women and girls just ignore it and get over it?

              Cyberviolence can have a more devastating psychological impact on victims than face-to-face interactions. It can have global reach and can take place anytime—it’s difficult to escape or to stop.48

              People who experience cyberviolence may be re-victimized every time a hateful message or sexual image is shared or viewed without their permission.49

              Cyberviolence can take a major toll on women’s mental health, sense of safety and well-being. An online survey of 60 respondents by Battered Women’s Support Services in BC, found that, due to cyberviolence:50

              • 48% of women surveyed experienced anxiety and 43% said their self-image was damaged.
              • 40% reported that they withdrew from online activity.
              • 30% felt shame and humiliation.
              • 28% experienced isolation from friends and family.
              • 13% reported “some impact on their job (losing their job, being unable to advance in job or being unable to find a new job).”
              • 10% reported that they had thoughts of suicide and engaging in self-harm.
              • 3.3% of women said that they had to move out of their community.

              Single and separated/divorced women are more likely than other women to report being cyberstalked.51 Women who experienced cyberstalking are 25% less likely than other women to rate their mental health as very good or excellent.52 75% of women who were cyberstalked reported being satisfied with their personal safety, compared to 87% of men who were cyberstalked.53

              Abusive partners and stalkers have started digital surveillance technologies to control and monitor their victims’ lives. Monitoring apps intended for purposes such as locating a friend, or a child can be used to monitor women and girls.54 These apps, known as spyware, give abusers unlimited access to their victims’ online activities and physical whereabouts without their knowledge.55 Some spyware companies market their products to intimate partners, so they can monitor their significant others’ activities.56

              According to a 2012 national survey of anti-violence support workers in Canada, 98% of perpetrators used technology to intimidate or threaten their victims.57 72% of the perpetrators “had hacked the email and social media accounts of women and girls that they targeted.”58 61% of the perpetrators “hacked into computers to monitor online activities and extract information,” while 31% “installed computer monitoring software or hardware on their target’s computer.”59

              Cyberviolence and online hate discourage people’s full participation in online dialogue and discussion. Almost one third of Canadians say they’re reluctant to use social media or participate in online discussions because of concerns about cyberbullying or online harassment.60

              Women who write or speak about women’s issues online face increased exposure to online abuse.61

              • How are girls and young women impacted by online hate and cyberviolence?

                Between 2009 and 2014, young women in Canada were more likely than other Internet users aged 15-29 to have experienced both cyberbullying and cyberstalking in the last five years, according to a 2016 Statistics Canada report.62

                Based on 2014 statistics, 14% of women aged 15-24 were cyberstalked in the previous five years, compared to 9% of men from the same age group.63

                Girls in Canada are more likely to be bullied online than boys.64 When adults were asked if a child aged 8 to 17 in their house had experienced cyberbullying, girls were the victims in 7 out of the 10 cases.65

                Girls are more vulnerable than boys to negative consequences of social media, according to a 2017 survey of 11,435 Ontario students from Grades 7-12. 66
                The survey revealed that girls are twice as likely as boys to feel stressed, hopeless and overwhelmed. Girls who spent more time on social media were more likely to report that they had thoughts of suicide. 61% of girls who used social media for more than five hours a day reported moderate to serious psychological distress while only 33% boys reported feeling the same way.

                The number of Ontario teens visiting hospital emergency rooms for self-harm and mental health problems increased between 2009 and 2017, reported the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry.67 The increase was greater among teen girls. The study suggested further study into possible links to social media and smart phone use. 68

                Over the past decade, suicide among girls has increased while male suicide in the same age group has declined.69 Experts suggest that the rising role of social media and, as a consequence, cyberbullying and information about suicide being readily available online likely to have influenced these trends.70

                • How does online hate and cyberviolence impact diverse women and girls?

                  Women and girls from an array of communities and backgrounds may face intensified cyberviolence, due to intersecting forms of discrimination. Islamophobia, for example, is one form of discrimination in Canada that contributes to Muslim women’s experiences of safety in public and online spaces. Between 2012 and 2015, police-reported hate crimes against Muslims increased by 253%.71

                  2SLGBTQ+ students are also more likely to be targets of online bullying, harassment and hate compared to heterosexual students, according to EGALE’s 2011 study. While 5.7% of heterosexual students were targeted online, 30% of female sexual minority students, 40% of transgender students, and 23% of gay male students said they were targeted. 72

                  • How does online hate and cyberviolence impact women working in politics and media?

                    Women in Canadian politics and in the media have dealt with disproportionate levels of online criticism about their gender and sexuality. Women politicians are more likely to be targeted online than male politicians with threatening and degrading emails, and social media messages.73

                    This kind of criticism also affects women-serving organizations and community groups.74 They may be subject to online attacks that delegitimize and devalue their efforts. When large national organizations experience online hate, there may be mechanisms to protect and help them deal with it, as well as a certain institutional weight that can come to bear on perpetrators if they can be identified.75 But when online attacks happen to individual workers and advocates, they have little protection and are more likely to leave the space than face the abuse.76

                    • Why can’t we just dismiss hate and cyberviolence against women as “part of being online”?

                      Reducing online hate is essential to ending gender-based violence overall. The Canadian Women’s Foundation submitted recommendations for next steps on related federal legislation in May 2019.77

                      Exposure to hateful attitudes that promote an inferior social, political, and economic position for women influence violence against women. It escalates the risk that consumers of such content will adopt similar attitudes and act on them.78 Research shows that men and boys with “violence-supportive beliefs and values” are more likely to engage in coercive and violent behaviour toward women.79

                      Hatred towards women increases physical acts of violence against women, just as inciting racial hate leads to an increase in racially-motivated violence.80 The intersection of these factors makes it especially dangerous for Indigenous women, Black women, women or colour, and identifiably Muslim women or women presumed to be Muslim.

                      Online hate material is especially dangerous due to the multiplier effect online. This material is permanently held in digital spaces; even when it is deleted in some spaces, it exists in others and can repeatedly expose women to harms.

                      Legal processes rarely help victims of misogynistic digital violence. Women who have tried to seek court rulings for doxing, flaming, stalking, revenge porn or other forms of technology-assisted misogyny have often ended up facing increased threats and danger, not resolution and safety.81

                      • Is there government policy and legislation to deter online hate and cyberviolence?

                        Government legislation and the legal system are still catching up to the Internet, and how to hold perpetrators of online hate and cyberviolence accountable.82

                        Although Canadian law addressing domestic abuse, harassment and serious invasion of privacy can be applied to illegal surveillance and online crime, there are inadequate legal remedies to respond to them.83

                        Governmental bodies in Canada have made attempts to reduce online hate and cyberviolence against women and girls.
                        In 2015, Bill C-13 came into effect to protect Canadians from online crimes. The Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act prohibits non-consensual distribution of intimate images, empowers courts to tackle this type of online crime, and provides monetary reimbursements to victims.84 It applies to people of all ages to address cyberbullying, non-consensual disclosure of intimate images and revenge porn.

                        West Coast LEAF made a submission to the House of Commons to voice their concern regarding Bill C-13.85 In the submission, they raised concerns about Bill C-13, saying it is a “limited response to a broad and diverse issue.”86 Battered Women’s Support Services has said that the bill does not address root causes of cyberviolence against women and girls, and it does not provide appropriate legal responses for victims.87 They noted the bill is aimed to address cyberbullying, which is different than cyberviolence.

                        In 2018, Newfoundland and Labrador introduced the Intimate Images Protection Act to tackle revenge porn, joining several other provinces who also enacted similar legislation.88

                        In late 2018, an MP proposed a new judicial body to provide tickets or warnings to individuals that post hate speech online.89

                        In 2019, the Federal Government announced a plan to introduce a new digital charter that will target hate speech, misinformation and electoral interference.90

                        More in-depth data could also help understand the scope of online hate in Canada, yet the available data on hate crimes only covers police-reported online hate crime.91 In 2019, Statistics Canada launched a Gender, Diversity and Inclusion department92 to improve data collection on diverse communities to understand the barriers that intersect with gender, race and other social categories. The department will offer service providers and policy makers with relevant data on different topics, taking gender and other identity factors into account.93

                        • What can you do about online hate and cyberviolence?

                          There are many ways you can respond to online hate and cyberviolence, whether you experience it personally or observe it happening to someone else.

                          Parents can consult these tips for talking to your teen about recognizing an unhealthy online relationship. Teens themselves can consult these tips for recognizing an unhealthy online relationship.

                          If you are experiencing online hate and/or cyberviolence:

                          • Talk to someone you trust.94 It may help to relieve the stress and emotional turmoil that comes with experiencing online harassment. Teens experiencing online abuse can confide in a trusted adult to help them.95
                          • Document the abuse. It’s important to keep a permanent record of what happened. If it’s too difficult to read the content, organizations such as HeartMob may be able to help. Friends and/or family members can also support women experiencing online harassment by keeping track of the abuse for them.96
                          • Contact the police. If you feel unsafe or the abuse worsens, file a police report and it could lead to a police investigation, as well as possible criminal charges.97

                          If you observe someone experiencing online hate and/or cyberviolence:

                          • Practice safe online intervention. If you see someone being attacked on social media, send them a private message to ask how they are doing and to find out if they need assistance.98
                          • Report online abuse or harmful content. You can report harassment and harmful content about someone to appropriate social media platforms and take steps to block the persons responsible.
                          • Talk about online harassment. Discuss online abuse with everyone you know and share information about it with your online communities.


                          This fact sheet was last updated in July 2019.

                          If you or someone you know is seeking support for abuse or violence, please visit our support services list. Please note that the Canadian Women’s Foundation does not provide counselling or services to individuals.

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  41. CTV News. Your Ward News duo guilty of promoting hate against women and Jews. Colin Perkel. 2019. Available here.
  42. iPolitics. Joly calls on web giants to fight hate speech from ‘incels’ after van attack. Rachel Gilmore. 2018. Available here.
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