When Spinning Forward began, the goal was to cover, amplify, and uplift underrepresented people and creators of color in the Toronto region. It has become clear that digital life mirrors IRL (In Real Life) related to barriers, obstacles, and disadvantages for marginalized communities. That means covering the good, the bad, and the ugly of digital life, especially for young people of color.

Today's topic is about the rise in online hate, harassment, and abuse in Canada. In researching the topic, I went down the rabbit hole and at one point did not want to publish this story because it was dark and disturbing. But that would be a disservice to you, the audience, because of the clear trend in Canada that more women, young people, and marginalized people are increasingly targeted in digital spaces. The more this topic is talked about, the higher the chance individuals will not feel alone, not remain silent and not self-censor online and in real life. The more this topic is discussed, the easier it will be to organize and take action as part of small groups and communities.

It's important to understand that this topic is complicated and difficult to solve. Digital hate and harassment have risen in Canada in recent years. At the same time, social media platforms have grown more powerful and richer because they benefit when engagement and polarization rise together. In recent years, digital hate has shifted from individuals acting on their own (which still happens) to coordinating planned attacks by hate mobs against targeted victims. The goal of hateful attacks is to harm and silence victims and survivors. New research shows that haters act collectively in an effort to compete and be popular based on how hateful and negative they can be in order to find belonging and community amongst themselves.

Incidentally, we reached out to several women and gender-diverse people for comment about this topic. They were unavailable or unable to speak about this topic.

Reading Time: 17 minutes (3100 words)

Flavian DeLima

Publisher & Editor, Spinning Forward


➡️ Canadian Streamer Imane Anys (@Pokimane) on Her Battle with Online Misogyny and Hate 💪

➡️ New Research shows Canada's Youth Face Rising Online Hate📈

➡️ How Online Mobs Coordinate Attacks Today 🔗

➡️ Tips on dealing with online hate. 🛡️


"Online platforms churn out very, very inciting comments and conspiracy theories that can have a tremendously negative effect on someone’s mental health.”

-Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, Panel: Breaking Barriers, Shaping Narratives: How Women Lead On and Off the Screen, SXSW 2024


Young Canadians focus on the good, not the bad of being an influencer

by Flavian DeLima

CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses themes of online hate, harassment, and misogyny, including specific instances of cyberbullying, deepfake abuse, and coordinated hate campaigns. It contains references to gender-based and racist violence, such as sexual assault, physical assault, Islamophobia, and other forms of online hate messages. It may be upsetting for some readers.

It's natural to focus on the positive instead of the negative when you are newer to something. Researchers at the University of Windsor in 2023 found that 75% of younger Canadians, and mainly women, want to become social media influencers. The reasons cited are money, fun, and access to new products or services. They are less aware of negative aspects like inconsistent earnings, burnout, mental health challenges, and harassing and hateful comments.

Canadian Streamer Pokimane Shares Her Battle with Online Misogyny and Hate

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Imane Anys, (@Pokimane, @pokimanelol, @poki) who goes by Pokimane is the most followed woman on Twitch at 9.3 million and 23 million across social media. Anys is a 27-year-old Moroccan-Canadian who grew up in St. Catharines and currently lives in Quebec. In January 2022, Anys was forced to end a live Twitch stream early after fellow streamer JiDion instructed his fans to harass her Twitch viewers in a “sexist” hate raid.

Anys has been a frequent victim of misogynistic comments and gossip. In another incident, a popular male gamer was caught watching pornographic deepfakes of Anys and other female gamers. She talked to the New York Times about the mental toll it takes in trying to build a sustainable career as an online personality:

“It becomes so easy for people to burn out or lose touch with themselves. … The way that technology and our culture are going, your experience with online misogyny is probably just a heightened example of something that more and more women and girls are going to be dealing with in the future. ... As someone who has been dealing with this stuff for a while, how do you navigate it in a way that doesn’t leave you feeling completely cynical about online gender dynamics?

Anys says it's necessary to find allies and supporters because misogyny and deepfakes have become normalized and accepted in the streaming industry:

”There are people in the streaming industry who don’t find misogyny deplorable, who don’t think it’s a big deal, who don’t think deepfaking should be punishable in any way. It’s almost like they’re trying to gaslight you into thinking that something that is so damaging to one’s mental health, you just shouldn’t think it’s a big deal.

“For me, it’s been invaluable to have fellow female streamers who know what I’ve gone through, who can validate my feelings. Having people there to tell you, no, it’s not OK, that goes a long way to preventing you from going crazy thinking that what you’re feeling is somehow wrong.”

Canada's Youth Face Rising Online Hate

Statistics Canada published a new report in February 2024 titled "Online Hate and Aggression Among Young People in Canada". The findings were unsettling for the country’s youth who spend increasing amounts of time online.

-71% of young people aged 15 to 24 have encountered online hate and violence.

-Teenage boys, aged 12 to 17, are six times more likely to be involved in cyber-related hate crimes compared to girls.

-11% of young women vs 3% of young men, aged 15-24, are pressured into sending, sharing, or posting explicit videos, images or messages.

-Between 2018 and 2022, the highest reported online hate crimes targeted Black and 2SLGBTQIA people , each at 17%.

-29% of disabled young people, aged 15 to 24, are exposed to online hate daily and are 2.5 times more likely to see such content compared to young people.

The finding that teenage boys are six times more likely than girls to participate in online hate crimes is something streamer, Anys has observed. Twitch has a feature called, “unban forms” that allows anyone who has been banned to apologize and request to unban them. She says,

“The amount of young boys that say something when they’re X age, then three years later they’re like, “I’m so sorry, I have no idea why I said that, and I’ve changed a lot”? It leaves you thinking: Was it puberty? What happened there? It feels like they’re testing things out. Like: I’ll say the craziest, weirdest stuff and see what happens. This is all still unprecedented territory, so young kids need to be taught how to treat people online.”

The Range of Online Abuse and Harassment

Cyberaggression and online hate comes in different forms. It may originate from audience members, competing content creators, or coordinated groups and online mobs. In this article, we explore groups and mobs that often target women and marginalized creators when their content goes viral. Such individuals are known by different names, such as trolls, pranksters, haters, bullies, harassers, and abusers.

Cyberaggression involves using digital technology to harm, intimidate or harass others. It happens on various online platforms, social media, messaging apps, online forums, email, gaming and other other digital communication channels. The most targeted people are based on race, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, or another identity. The types of activities include cyberbullying, spreading misinformation, hacking, and online harassment and other forms of digital abuse.

Victims of cyberaggression and cyberbullying sometimes believe they can and should be able to handle it. In 2022 Google researchers studied how creators experience and cope with online hate and harassment. They found minority creators are targeted more frequently than the general population. Nearly every content creator experiences some form of online hate and harassment and one in three experience it regularly. In one interview, a creator said,

”If you are on the internet, no matter the platform, get a thick skin. If you have issues dealing with people calling you names... don't get on social media”.

SXSW addresses online hate and toxicity

There were many panels at SXSW in March on the topic of online hate and harassment. At one panel, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, spoke about how harmful and toxic social media has become today. On another panel, Dylan Mulvaney, (@dylanmulvaney) a 27-year-old prominent transgender content creator, spoke on the importance of brands in combating hate. Despite facing severe attacks due to her identity, she continues to advocate for brands to take a stand for trans and other creators.

Fae Johnstone (@faedingaway), an Ottawa-based trans woman, advocate and writer, told the CBC they experienced a “staggering cancel campaign” of anti-2SLGBTQ+ hate for a Hershey’s Canada chocolate bar campaign to celebrate International Women's Day in 2023. The brand had to hire security guards to be stationed around their home for six days due to the severity of the threats. One clear goal of hateful and abusive comments is to silence marginalized creators. They said,

"Part of the intention here is to make the next trans person more hesitant."

After the Hershey Canada campaign, Johnstone wrote an article for the Walrus in May 2023 describing the severe backlash from far-right figures and the impact of escalating anti-trans sentiment.

YWCA Canada Study Online Hate Targets Indigenous, 2SLGBTQI, and Black People

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In 2020, YWCA Canada received funding from Public Safety Canada for a 4-year research project called "Block Hate: Building Resilience against Online Hate Speech". It conducted national surveys and focus groups to understand how Canadian youth, aged 14 to 30, experience online hate. Their focus was on those who experience marginalization, including young women and non-binary youth, Black, Indigenous, and youth of color, LGBTQ2S+ youth, religious minorities, and youth with disabilities. Their research found:

  • 83% of women and gender-diverse people in Canada have witnessed online hate in the past 24 months.
  • 25% of young women and gender diverse youth have been personally targeted by online hate.
  • About 60% of young survivors facing online hate are targeted monthly or more, with many experiencing it daily.
  • Youth with disabilities are 70% more likely to experience online hate directly.
  • Youth from 2SLGBTQIA+ and Indigenous communities are about 60% more likely to be targeted by online hate.
  • Young Black people are 53% more likely to be made targets of online hate.

It's hard to imagine the intensity of hateful, harassing and abusive online language used against women and marginalized people. YWCA Canada did a #BlockHate public awareness campaign in 2022. They interviewed four women that were targetted and asked strangers to read and respond to some of the hate.

CONTENT WARNING: The following short videos contain references to gender-based and racist violence such as, but not limited to, references to sexual assault, physical assault, islamophobia, slurs and online hate. messages. To learn about four women survivors of hate, click here for Noor, here for Linda, here for Brandi and here for Carla.

Social media platforms amplify divisiveness: The YWCA Block Hate report shows how social media platforms can shape what users see, share and believe. Their business model is most profitable for engaging content that gets the most clicks, comments, and shares. One way platforms achieve this is to promote polarization, division and hate. One YWCA focus group participant created a new TikTok account and posted just one comment about right-wing nationalism. TikTok then began filling their social feed with suggestions for similar content. Other participants experienced the same thing, which is known as confirmation bias. This happens when you only see content that supports your views and ignores opposing content.

United Nations says online hate rising against minorities globally

A 2021 United Nations report found that online hate against minorities is increasing in most countries. 75% or more of the victims are from minority groups, with women in these groups being disproportionately targeted. Dr. Fernand de Varennes, the report's author, said:

"Too often, hate speech is followed by hate crimes and violence. It can too easily prepare the ground for dehumanisation and scapegoating of minorities, and for normalising hate."

Online Hostility: Marginalized creators under pressure to be agreeable online

In a 2022 Psychology Today article, York University assistant professor, Duygu Biricik Gulseren, and researcher Zanta Yee Fong found that content creators are regularly exposed to intentional and hostile behaviour. They feel constant pressure to come across as pleasant, agreeable, and likeable, which worsens their mental health. In their study, the researchers describe a YouTube creator couple that received thousands of negative comments, with many that viewed the couple as not suitable for each other. The intensity and amount of harmful comments caused the couple to question their relationship, and they decided to take an indefinite break from working together.

The Double-Edged Sword of Going Viral: South Asian Creator Brynta Ponn

The Canadian Women's Foundation, whose mission to empower women and girls to move from violence and poverty into confidence and leadership, published a 2019 Online Hate report for the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. It mentions the "multiplier effect" related to online hate which means that when hateful messages, images, and videos are posted online, they can spread quickly and widely. This is because social media makes sharing content easy. Polarization often means more engagement and more money for platforms, thereby perpetuating a similar cycle.

In a 2023 interview on the "Alright, Now What?" podcast by the Canadian Women's Foundation, Brynta Ponn talks about the significant impact of digital body shaming, blame, online harassment, and hate on her mental health and self-esteem.

Brynta Ponn (@bryntaponn, @brynstagram) is a South Asian body confidence advocate, and content creator from Toronto. She focuses on promoting positive body image and self-acceptance to address prevalent body image issues and encourage living authentically and confidently. Ponn describes the "double edged sword" of what it feels like a few times a year when her content goes viral:

"My block list is, quite frankly, hundreds of thousands of people long. It is so long because, especially as I show up online as a woman, I think once or twice a year I have two periods of this influx of just men attacking my page. Yeah, I’ll have something go viral at least twice a year and those two … Oh my gosh, those two periods of time are … I spend like days, hours of my day, completely just blocking and deleting and blocking, and it’s overwhelming and it starts to affect my mental health."

Creating Safe Spaces: How Indigenous Creator Kairyn Potts Shields Youth from Online Negativity

Two-Spirit person, Indigenous content creator, Kairyn Potts also appeared on the "Alright, Now What?" podcast by the Canadian Women's Foundation discussing his experience with online hate and harassment.

Kairyn (Kai) Potts (@ohkairyn) is a Two-Spirit person, Indigenous content creator, writer, actor, model, and TV host, who lives in Tkaronto (Toronto). He continues his advocacy work to improve Indigenous youth's lives, especially queer youth and youth in the child and family services system). In the episode, Potts discusses his experience with digital spaces.

"I deal with all of the hate, everything that you can imagine. Everything from the really ugly comments on my videos to straight up just physical violence in the real world based on who I am and pretty much for no other reason than just existing as a queer person, as a gender-diverse somebody who exists kind of in this in-between space that really makes a lot of people uncomfortable."

Potts blocks online haters as a way to preserve his mental health and protect young people who follow him and spend time in the comments section. He says,

"I don’t want them to see random adults telling me to kill myself because they see a lot of themselves in me. If they’re reading those comments and seeing that a lot of people are, you know, hating on me or whatever, calling for my downfall, that’s going to harm them. It’s not going to harm me, it’s going to harm them – babies. So that’s what I’m always thinking about is them kids."

Potts says people should find ways to enjoy their time on social media. For example, if being online is too hard, then schedule "turn off my phone time". He also believes in community and surrounding yourself with good people in real life and online. To preserve your digital safe spaces, he says, "If you know that you don’t like somebody and you follow them, just unfollow them."

Cross-Platform Raids: How Online Mobs Coordinate Attacks Today

Troll Culture Finds Amusement in Others' Misery: Whitney Phillips, Assistant Professor at Syracuse University and author of "This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things", says that women, people of color, and other marginalized communities are the biggest targets of online hate by anonymous haters. A troll is a person whose goal is to annoy, bother, hurt, and waste the time of people they target. Phillips mentions a troll culture term called "Lulz". It describes the "acute amusement in the face of someone else’s distress, embarrassment, or rage." What trolls enjoy most is to derive joy, fun, and humour from the chaos they help create online at the expense of those they target.

Haters hate for social approval: A 2023 study by Cornell University found that the more “likes” a negative post receives, the more likely it is for the author's next message to be even more hateful. In the same way online relationships can be intensely positive and lead to making new friends, the same is true for people who collectively meet online and are hostile towards an intended target. Joseph B. Walther, a scholar at Harvard University, wrote in The Conversation in 2023 that a big reason people post online hate comments is to "get attention and garner social approval" from people like themselves. Walther writes:

It’s a social activity. It’s exhilarating to be the nastiest or snarkiest and to get lots of thumbs-ups or hearts.

Coordinated Online Attacks: Internet researchers Gianluca Stringhini, Jeremy Blackburn study something called cross-platform “raids”. This happens when a single user successfully recruits others from a fringe website condoning hate. The group's extreme views on fringe sites is typically not tolerated on mainstream sites. The recruitment begins when one user posts a link to a mainstream social media platform like YouTube, and some information about the target's race, gender, or sexual orientation. They then urge like-minded users in the fringe site to visit that video and fill the comments section with hateful and harassing messages.

The incessant online hate from a coordinated attack can result in hundreds or even thousands of comments in a short period. This leads to a significant decline in the victim's mental health due to severe anxiety, depression, and PTSD-like symptoms. The group of attackers will then return to the fringe site and take turns posting their screenshots to see who got the most "upvotes" and "likes". Victims are often shocked and upset when they see hateful comments get likes or upvotes.

Researchers point out that cross-platform raids are more focused on a group of people wanting a dopamine rush and approval from each other rather than the actual content and the victim. Dopamine serves as a reward mechanism, offering pleasure from gaining attention and approval on social media. The dopamine hit is what members of an online mob need most, so they are motivated to return and try to outdo themselves for each others pleasure at the full expense of their next victim.

Flavian DeLima is the publisher and editor of Spinning Forward.