Women supporting the anti-government protests in Hong Kong say they are being harassed online, including with rape threats, body-shaming and doctored photograph, by suspected pro-Beijing commenters.
Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have taken to the city’s streets week after week in the biggest challenge to China’s rule of the semi-autonomous territory for decades.
However, female protesters posting support for the pro-democracy movement said they have experienced a slew of sexist online attacks in response.
“They are not attacking my views or anything, they just attack me because I am female,” Hong Kong student Mickey Leung Ho Wun said.
The 17-year-old discovered a doctored picture of her at a pro-democracy rally was being spread on Facebook via a page supporting the city’s police.
In the original, Wun is standing next to a banner reading: “I am a secondary school student,” but in the altered version, the sign reads: “I am not wearing any underwear.”
“These are Hong Kong people who are pro-Beijing,” Wun said of the people sharing the doctored image.
Celebrity Hong Kong singer turned activist Denise Ho (何韻詩) said on Facebook that the aim of online attacks against her was to “ignore her will, ignore her vision, focus on her exterior and dress, and then demonize.”
These women said they suspected pro-Beijing trolls were behind the abuse, as the majority of messages were in simplified Chinese, which is predominantly used in mainland China.
The abuse has intensified since Beijing ramped up its rhetoric over the protests, they said.
On Wednesday evening last week, thousands rallied against alleged police sexual violence, holding aloft purple lights in solidarity with abuse victims.
Attendees shared the #ProtestToo hashtag, a play on 2017’s global #MeToo movement that exposed sexual assault and harassment in high-profile industries.
However, women at the protest told reporters that they had stopped posting online as the rhetoric against the protesters increased.
Online harassment was “a weapon to harm women,” a spokesperson for Hong Kong’s Association Concerning Sexual Violence Against Women said, adding that it was linked to outdated social norms and cultural values.
Social media has been a key battleground for both sides during the protests.
Last month, tech giants Twitter and Facebook said that they had suspended nearly 1,000 active accounts emanating from China aimed at undercutting the legitimacy of the Hong Kong protest movement.
Twitter said it had shut down a further 200,000 accounts before they could inflict any damage.
Laurel Chor (左力豐), 29, said that as a female reporter covering the protests in Hong Kong, she had received a “constant barrage” of abuse in her comments and Instagram DMs.
“They were using words like whore or prostitute and bitch,” she said.
A Twitter post that called on people to shun a list of female Asian journalists — including Chor — was indicative of how “women do get disproportionately targeted and it is not only gendered, but also racial,” she said.
Similarly, journalist Vicky Xu (許秀中), who was born in mainland China, but is writing about the protests from Australia, said that her Twitter account was swamped by negative comments, including rape threats.
“The insults that were towards me they were a really weird combination of nasty nationalism, sexism and racism,” she said. “I felt physically sick.”
It is not only pro-democracy demonstrators who have been subjected to such treatment. Photographs of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) have been superimposed onto scantily-clad models’ bodies and pasted on walls in the city.
Meanwhile, the wives of some serving police officers were identified by Telegram users who created a poll on the encrypted messaging service to vote on which wife they would rather “sleep with,” a senior police source said.
A Twitter spokesperson told reporters that “abuse, harassment and hateful conduct have no place on our service.”
Neither Instagram nor Facebook immediately responded to requests to comment, but Instagram confirmed that it was investigating the issue.
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