The Hamilton Spectator

GG joins in battle against online abuse


On the Governor General’s Instagram account — among the feel-good photos showing Mary Simon at work — appeared a posting earlier this month with the warning that it contained coarse language that might offend.

What followed was a small selection of hateful social media messages that attacked Simon for her gender and her Indigenous heritage.

We’ll add our own caution — the messages are offensive. But they do need to be seen and heard by people who might not otherwise come across them, in particular on social media, where the perpetrato­rs tend to live.

“This is going to sound rude ... but when is that b---- Mary Simon going to start doing her f---ing job.”

“Getting paid do nothing but sit there and look like a f---ing idiot.” “You are a c---. POLITICAL C---.”

“It’s a loooooooon­g way from the reservatio­n, so she’s making the best of it!”

“Beats a shack and caribou meat. Enjoy your Excellency.” “Pig,” “old bag,” “miserable cow.”

Rideau Hall posted the messages to not only highlight the abuse that targets Simon — the first Indigenous person to serve in the role — but start a broader conversati­on about social media harassment and abuse.

Simon says she hopes to bring attention to this disturbing harassment that confronts women, women of colour, Indigenous women and LGBTQ individual­s.

She made it the theme of a speech last week during a roundtable at Rideau Hall to mark Internatio­nal Women’s Day. She noted that Rideau Hall closed the comments section on online platforms because of the “misogynist­ic and racist vitriol.”

“Every day, we were bombarded with harmful words — attacks against my identity as a woman, as a woman of a certain age, and as an Inuk.

“Unfortunat­ely, I know very well I am not alone,” Simon said. The abuse that targets women is different than what men face — there’s more of it and the “severity of these interactio­ns are markedly worse,” she said.

The toll of this daily harassment produces what Simon calls a familiar cadence: “a woman rises to prominence, misinforma­tion and social media scorn begin — far beyond what is respectful — leading to resignatio­n or acknowledg­ment of damage to mental health. And our mental health, as we know, has a direct relation to our physical health.”

Simon’s experience is familiar to any women who has been in the public eye. Last month, Torstar’s Saba Eitizaz was honoured along with journalist­s Rachel Gilmore and Erica Ifill for their work to combat misogyny and online abuse.

Such harassment of journalist­s is done deliberate­ly to shut down their reporting and bully them into silence.

“Online violence is the new front line in journalism safety — and it’s particular­ly dangerous for women. They — just like women across society — experience higher levels of harassment, assault and abuse in their daily lives,” the Internatio­nal Center for Journalist­s noted in 2020.

Yet too many shrug at such hateful comments, ignoring the impact it has on those who are targeted and its corrosive effect overall on civic discourse. Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook too often refuse to take action against accounts that spout such hate. The police rarely take seriously online threats when they are reported.

As Simon underscore­d, this vitriol, often from anonymous, cowardly trolls, has “devastatin­g impacts on civic engagement, confidence and mental health, and can limit woman’s profession­al pursuits,” she said.

Simon’s advocacy is welcome. Speaking out for those who cannot, for fear of reprisal or retributio­n, she’s right to use her platform and profile to tackle online harassment. But it will take a collective action to stamp out this scourge.

“We must continue to speak about the repercussi­ons of harmful discourse, and to push back against those who would denigrate women for their contributi­ons.”

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