17 Oct ‘Sniper her, rape her, drown her, cook her in a umu’ – and Facebook approves.

I was asked to be on this panel: Culture and Context Online –  because I have some experience with the complaints process reporting abuse to Netsafe and to NZ Police. My story may be that of only one brown woman, but I’m only one of many who have experienced online abuse and I come here today fuelled by the combined hurt, fear and rage of many other Samoan women who have shared their stories with me. I pray for the strength to speak without falling apart, and hope that my meagre words may be of some help as you navigate a path forward to building safe online spaces for all.

When seeking to understand Pasifika cultural norms and values in online spaces – its essential to know that as with other collectivist cultures, we are never just individuals. Its not “me”, its always “us”. I speak from the perspective of a Samoan woman, but I believe that the dynamic is very similar for other Pacific Islanders. We are our parents, grandparents, extended family, our village, our church congregations. And when we go online, we carry those connections with us. For a Samoan, using their real name, going online is like being in a village and the internet is a very small place.

This means that the public shaming associated with online abuse, is amplified many times over when you are Samoan. Because everyone knows everyone. Because an attack on the individual is an attack on the extended family. Our shame is not ours alone, but our families, and our proverbial village. The impact of that shame is so very powerful and suffocating. We can’t just block, delete and ignore online abuse because it has very real impact on our village outside the internet.

It also means that threats of violence are much more credible – because they cant be dismissed as just coming from random trolls who you will never bump into in real life. The things that make us a close-knit community where everyone-knows-everyone and everyone-is-your-cousin-somehow no matter where we go in the world, those are the same things that make it incredibly frightening and dangerous to be a Pacific Islander victim of online abuse. That strange man saying he’s going to chop you up and drag your carcass down the street? Not only does he know who your extended family are, but he will have an extended family village of his own that he can call on to carry out his threats.

This kind of fear has been my lived reality for the past 9 months ever since I became the target of an anonymous blog and Facebook page that specializes in running smear campaigns against prominent Samoans, and their children. Or just anyone who has an opinion that the page admins don’t like. The bloggers encourage their followers to bully and abuse their targets and they especially delight in targeting women. In an attempt to discredit me and my work as a journalist and a writer, to silence my voice, the bloggers attacked me, my extended family and eventually my children.

I reported abusive content to Facebook many times and was told repeatedly, that the abuse did not breach their community standards. I have a few examples of what Facebook says is acceptable. Only a small selection of the abusive content written about me and my family, and all of it is still there on public pages. (Some of the translations are a ‘toned down’ version of the content and Samoan speakers will be able to see why…)

What have I learned from this?

1.Facebook’s community standards allow women to be abused and threatened, especially when that abuse is not in English. Their moderators are either overworked or just don’t care. Does Facebook employ any Pacific Islanders who are fluent in any of our languages? If not, then how can they possibly monitor the widespread abuse taking place in Samoan/Pasifika pages?

In April, I walked into a police station with a folder of 800+ screenshots of online abuse, that included rape and death threats. The 1st officer I spoke to said – “Why don’t you just change your name on Facebook. Then they can’t find you anymore?” When I persisted, she said, “What do you expect us to do about it? Even the FBI can’t make Facebook do anything” While the officer had heard of the Harmful Digital Communications Act, she was unfamiliar with what it covered. She told me, WELL WHAT ARE YOU DOING ON THE INTERNET THEN? JUST DONT GO ON THERE AND THEY’LL LEAVE YOU ALONE. I left the station in tears. What did I learn from this?

 2. (Some/Many?) NZ Police lack clear knowledge and understanding about the Harmful Digital Communications Act. They need to learn more about the impact of online abuse and how to  better treat victims when they come to report it.

Netsafe were much more receptive to my problem. They filed with the website host provider to have abusive content removed. They were unsuccessful. They filed with Facebook to have abusive content removed. Facebook refused. Netsafe appealed. Facebook agreed and shut down the lead abusers and their anonymous pages. But it was a temporary respite only because the pages appealed and Facebook put them back up within a few weeks, only this time, they were more cocky and assured of their untouchability.

3. Netsafe is a beacon of light for victims of abuse. Their staff are kind and understanding. They can give you helpful information. But ultimately, when it comes to stopping abusers, Netsafe is useless because it has no regulatory power whatsoever. Internet giants like Facebook don’t recognize them as being an equal partner in building safe online spaces. Netsafe cannot punish people for their actions online, or force them to remove harmful content. They are a cup of tea and a biscuit. Don’t get me wrong, when you’re being targeted, you need that cup of tea and that kind shoulder to cry on virtually. But it’s not enough.

Netsafe connected me with police officers who were more informed about the HDC Act This time police were sympathetic. But still, police did not approach Facebook about my situation. They didn’t follow up on any of the abusers who were using their real identities. They said there’s ‘nothing much we can do’. “A low likelihood of identifying anything other than an IP address…’ insufficient evidence etc. Netsafe suggested that I try filing with the District Court. But the police discouraged me from doing that. He said I didn’t have a case and that the HDC Act worked for victims who know their abuser personally and where there is a prior history of violence. He said if anyone tried to hurt us in person, then to call the police.

4. There is a disconnect between information being given out by Netsafe and that from police. Police do not see online abuse as being harmful, in and of itself. If online threats turn into actual physical harm – police say THEN they can do something.  

Police did give me advice about internet safety precautions. They showed me how easy it would be for someone to find my address and phone number. I had tried posting screenshots of the abuse from people who used their real names, and responding to the harassment. Police suggested that I stop calling out the people who were threatening me, stop writing about topics that make the trolls angry, stop responding to or rebutting any of the defamatory content posted about me and my family because it only incites the abusers more.

5. Police (claim to ?) have little to NO power to deal with abusers. Online abusers cannot be held accountable for their actions. The responsibility for preventing further abuse is placed on the victim. Victims are expected to change their behavior and limit their online speech. They cannot ‘fight back’ in any way because they will bring further abuse on themselves.

I was afraid. I was ashamed of what I had brought upon my family. I listened to police. I deleted my Facebook account, even though I needed it for my work. I stopped writing articles about anything connected to the abusers or to the issues that triggered them. I didn’t respond to any further attacks. But the abuse continued. Followers sent messages to my husband telling him they had sent my picture to all their family and friends in Australia and NZ so they could be ready waiting for me the next time I travel anywhere. The bloggers continued to write lies and abusive posts about me. I realized that police were wrong. Being silent would not guarantee our safety. And the system that I kept trying to get help from? Netsafe, the HDC Act, the police, Facebook’s thousands of community standards moderators – none of them could help us.

6. The current system doesn’t work, especially when you are a brown woman. We should all be gravely concerned about how the system is supposed to be working for our brown youth and those who have far fewer resources than I do, those who will never get an invite to speak on a panel and could never afford a ticket to attend a conference like this. We have heard that People of Color are disproportionately affected by online abuse, but look around you, theres so few of us here participating in these vital conversations or making the decisions that will affect us. We have heard that only 30% of those who are abused online, report it, and that we need to destigmatise asking for help. But my experience with reporting abuse and asking for help – has shown that those in positions of power and online ‘authority’ have very little concrete help to give. So whats the point? Until fatal gaps in the current complaints process are addressed, than it will continue to be the marginalised and most vulnerable amongst us who will suffer.

Culture and Context Panel, 2018 Netsafe Crossroads Conference. Photo by – Laura O’Connell Rapira.

The Act is supposed to provide quick and affordable ways to get help for people in New Zealand receiving serious or repeated harmful digital communications. It hasn’t done that for me and my family. I have helped other women report online abuse to Netsafe, and the Act hasn’t helped them either. Their abuse is still up for the world to see. I regret encouraging them to report their abuse because nothing has come from it.

People don’t realise how much it takes to report abuse. You’re afraid because you know if the abusers find out, then they will write more even worse things about you and your family. I’m sure Im going to get slammed for speaking here today. Its exhausting to gather and keep evidence, all the screenshots, carrying them around like a bag of rocks on your back. And every time you have to file a new report with a different agency, you have to explain it all over again to fit their forms.

Finally, some suggestions – Facebook’s unregulated power and influence is dangerous and even more so, in small countries, and for minority groups like Pacific Islander peoples.

  • Anonymous FB pages should not be allowed. Make admins accountable for their content.

  • Abuse complaints should be handled by a moderator body that is local to the area of the victim. Eg, Netsafe should have regulatory power over NZ complaints.

  • Moderator teams funded by Facebook and located in different countries/areas around the world, should have fluent native speakers of their different languages, hired and managed locally so that they are guaranteed to be in tune with cultural customs and context.

  • Netsafe needs a more diverse staff that better represents the people it serves. Do they have enough staff to handle the needs of our most at risk?

  • There should be a better, easier way to file with the District Court once the Netsafe avenue has failed, ie a summary file of all the evidence and links can be automatically prepared and filed on the victim’s behalf. Right now, when Netsafe has tried everything it can try, then it sends you away to go ‘try something else’…somewhere else, and you are set adrift on your own.

Today I’m tired. I’m angry. But I’m not ashamed. And that is my message to others who endure online abuse. Hold your head high. The shame is not yours. It belongs to those who write abuse, filth and threats online. The shame belongs to content hosts like Facebook who prioritise profits over any ethical accountability, and who give abusers a free platform to hurt and terrorise people. Conferences like this are very nice on paper, but a lot of it is meaningless, unless a god like Facebook takes responsibility and gives up some of its unregulated godliness. Good luck with that.

To my Pasifika family – We must educate our young and old how to be informed and responsible users of social media, how to discern when “news” is fake. I acknowledge the vital work so many are doing to build strong support systems in our families and wider community circle so that our youth (and all of us!) have the strength and resilience to stand unbroken by online abuse. We must continue to nurture the relationships in our proverbial village – aiga, churches, community – because they will be the ones we can turn to for help, to raise us up when abusers try to bring us down.

The text of a presentation given at the 2018 Netsafe Trans-Tasman Crossroads Conference held in Auckland, NZ on 10-11 October. I was an invited guest of the Netsafe organisers and I have great respect and appreciation for their willingness to have me speak – knowing my experience with reporting online abuse had not gotten any successful resolution. This to me shows their sincere commitment to serving their mandate as New Zealand’s independent, non-profit online safety organisation, that is working to help people in New Zealand take advantage of the opportunities available through technology by providing practical tools, support and advice for managing online challenges. I am hopeful that my story will be of some help in the road forward for all those in positions of power and responsibility for ensuring online spaces are safer for all.  

There were Facebook representatives at the Crossroads Conference and as a result of my presentation, I was asked for a meeting where we discussed the concerns raised. Facebook says they are now looking into this issue and also informed me that they have been undergoing a review of their moderating standards for abuse against women who are ‘public figures’ . Will update the blog when I get any new information. 

  • Kika Mata'u

    Lani you are amazing! You are so inspiring to samoan woman not just in Samoa or New Zealand but here in the states too. Be strong in your fight. People are watching and NOT just people who wish you harm. God is with you!

    October 18, 2018 at 6:57 am
  • Lii Leului

    Who do these punks think they are? Ugghh Continue to be strong and fight for what you believe in! 🙂

    October 18, 2018 at 2:46 pm
  • Valelia Sefo

    Oh Samoa, whatever happened to “mafaufau muamua ae le’i Oso”, whatever happened to “Ava fatafata”. I am so sorry for your experience. Thank you for stepping up, thank you for sharing, for doing something about it. #EmpoweringWomen #BrownWomen

    October 19, 2018 at 1:23 pm
  • “This means that the public shaming associated with online abuse, is amplified many times over when you are Samoan. Because everyone knows everyone. Because an attack on the individual is an attack on the extended family. Our shame is not ours alone, but our families, and our proverbial village. The impact of that shame is so very powerful and suffocating. We can’t just block, delete and ignore online abuse because it has very real impact on our village outside the internet.” – Lani – I stand with you. Keep on keeping on. There are many battles to be had under the name of one war. You koorero here is important – you are not only speaking for yourself – which is why I copied the piece you wrote into this comment – you are speaking for many Samoan yes, and others Polynesian. You are speaking for those who have passed over – you are speaking to clear the way for those yet to come. Thank you for being unwilling to justify and rationalise and deny the many untruths that mainstream – western mainstream society bestows upon those like yourself. Thank you for being in a continual cycle of water – > air – > earth – > fire. With great thanks to those capable of holding space for you to breathe & for you to rest your sacred head when the sheer weight of what being awakened truly means, impacts over and over again. I stand with you. I breathe with you. Mauri ora.

    October 19, 2018 at 8:55 pm

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