As a journalist you’re used to writing headlines, not featuring in them, but Australian television news presenter and journalist Lisa Millar found herself making front page news when she decided to step away from Twitter in September 2021 following relentless personal attacks and online trolling.
Her brave move came just months after I had hosted MarketLit, Australia’s first millennial and Gen Z investment conference, and watched in horror at how our youngest female participants – no men – were targeted online.
As a journalist myself I felt compelled to take action and shine a spotlight on the injustice. I was struck by Lisa’s courage and reached out to interview her and Walkley Award-winning journalist Annabel Crabb to feature in the upcoming MarketLit conference, examining the future of our digital economy. With the lines still blurring between media and social media it’s clear the regulators must now step in. To advance the discussion I asked both women to share how trolling had impacted them and why women seem to attract more abuse online than men.
Lisa explains, “I was pretty much being bullied every day by strangers and I thought, I don’t actually have to accept this. So I thought, I am going to step away, I’ll just pause it for a month, and I’ll see how I feel. But, someone spotted that I had stepped away and that then became a story in itself”. Lisa’s decision to leave her 55,000 followers on Twitter turned out to be permanent after she wasn’t met with an adequate response from the complaints process and says, “At the end of the day I really felt the only thing that was left was to step off the platform.”
The co-host of ABC’s News Breakfast was not prepared for the overwhelming response to her move, backed by award-winning political reporter Leigh Sales who has described the kind of online abuse she receives as “’non-stop, personal, often vile, frequently unhinged and regularly based on fabrications”.
When Lisa walked away she said she was “blown away by the response”. “It had been building over about six months… I was feeling the attacks seemed to be more coordinated and stretched from personal appearance to politics, but then I got to the point where I was taking phone calls from people who where asking, “Are you ok because you are trending again on Twitter?” and I just felt like it was becoming this big thing in my life that not only was I getting attached for decisions that were completely out of my hands, but I was getting attached for interviews I hadn’t done.”
Leigh, who herself has won three Walkley Awards and an Order of Australia for services to broadcast journalism – said at the time, “For Lisa to be so bothered by abuse on Twitter that she has deactivated her account should tell you something about the relentless and disgusting nature of the attacks”.
Why are women hit harder than men online
Annabel Crabb is known for interviewing the toughest personalities in parliament, but calls social media platforms, “the Wild West in terms of safety, particularly for women… I think a lot of men are surprised when they see the kind of material that particularly high profile women get absolutely shot at them on a daily basis”.
We know that abuse does not discriminate, but it does seem to favour targeting women. New figures out from the ABS this week report more than 50 per cent of women have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime, double that of men.
Lisa also notes her co-host Michael Rowland was shocked at what she had to endure. “It was an interesting experience to sit next to Michael Rowland, and he could see how I was being approached by people on social media, and Michael was not getting anyone telling him he has tuck shop arms and should stop flapping them around.”
Having spent my career in financial markets I remain horrified at the high levels of anonymous abusers on social media. While trolls exist across all industries, women in male dominated industries, such as finance and politics, are at high risk of being ridiculed online for no more than being a woman. Not only does this bullying impact individuals on a personal level and hinder their ability to act authentically, but puts additional pressure on arriving at gender equality.
In the online world, the abuse and misinformation is pronounced, even leading the World Health Organisation this week to call it a ‘digital crisis’: “The unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how the spread of misinformation, amplified on social media and other digital platforms, is proving to be as much a threat to global public health as the virus itself”.
In Australia the eSafety Commissioner is our national independent regulator for online safety, acknowledges the impact of online abuse targeting women and provides resources to collect evidence and report actions: “Women can experience high levels of abuse online, which can damage their confidence, self-esteem and feelings of personal safety. Understand the different types of abuse and the pathways available to get help and support.”
How the government plans to unmask the trolls
Against this backdrop, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has stepped in this month with some rules of his own and flagged laws to end online bullying on social media. The historic name could see social media platforms classified as ‘publishers’ and responsible for the comments their users, or ‘authors’ make. Essentially, unlawful online trolls now risk being named and shamed publicly.
“The online world provides many great opportunities, but it comes with some real risks, and we must address these or it will continue to have a very harmful and corrosive impact on our society, on our community… the rules that exist in the real world, must exist in the digital and online world,” says the Prime Minister.
Annabel has herself interviewed Scott Morrison, and her fair share of law makers and believes, “We’re now at this interesting juncture I think where legislators now understand how social media works.”
“I think there was a bit of a loophole there where everyone was a bit like, “Well that’s just on Twitter surely you can’t defame anyone on there or whatever..” I think now that social media is such a standardised part of the media there is a reckoning, and I think that what the big social media companies are starting to appreciate is that either they fix the system or it gets fixed,” says Annabel.
Fixing the system couldn’t come too soon for Lisa who advocates for free speech but wants better protection against online abuse. “I dont want to see anyone lose their voice, except the trolls. And, I have to keep reminding myself this is a very small proportion. Unfortunately for me it was a daily deluge that just became too much for me to bare”, Lisa admits.
“I do think about that by removing myself from Twitter I did silence my own voice. But that was a balance, and that was a decision that I had to make. The jury is still out, but we all need to talk about what is going on.”
Lisa Millar and Annabel Crabb will present online along with global thought leaders discussing responsible technology this Friday 10am AEST Friday 10 December at MarketLit: Australia’s first social media investment conference.